Profile: She Aims to Save, Restore NJ’s Waters — Not Just at Jersey Shore

Scott Gurian | December 10, 2014 | Profiles
Executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper leads preservation and cleanup efforts focused on NY/NJ harbor estuary and tidal rivers and bays of Bayshore region

Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper
Who she is: Debbie Mans

What she does: Executive Director of NY/NJ Baykeeper, a bi-state nonprofit organization working to protect, preserve and restore the NY/NJ harbor estuary. That includes the Raritan River and Bay, the Arthur Kill, Newark Bay, the lower Passaic River, and all the other tidal rivers and bays in the area, extending to Jamaica Bay on Long Island.

Age: 42

Hometown: Originally from Michigan, Mans has lived with her family in Glen Ridge for the past 15 years.

What her group does: Part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance movement, NY/NJ Baykeeper has worked over the years to preserve open space, including keeping large portions of the New Jersey Meadowlands from being developed. It’s restored oyster beds in New York Harbor and the Raritan Bay to naturally filter decades of pollution. It’s also advocated for cleanup of the Passaic River, better water-quality standards, and “green” infrastructure projects throughout the region. The group recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.

How she got involved: After studying environmental law in Vermont, Mans was hired by the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association in Pennington. From there, she became a policy director for NY/NJ Baykeeper before leaving to advise Gov. Jon Corzine on environmental and energy matters. In 2008, she was re-hired by Baykeeper as its executive director.

Why she’s interested in the Bayshore region: “This is where I live. This is where all our staff lives,” Mans said. “We want to enjoy the water and know that we’re safe when we go into it. We want the open spaces in our backyard. I think it’s a fundamental right to enjoy natural areas without having to get in a car and drive an hour to the wetlands or to a beach. And many people can’t afford to do that. So it’s really important to us that this is where we do our work.”

Fighting an uphill battle: Mans acknowledges that the Bayshore region lacks the star power of the Jersey Shore. It’s largely working class and industrial, and it’s dealing with a historical legacy of pollution along its waterfront. She notes that if people eat crabs from the Passaic River, for example, they’re putting themselves at risk for cancer. So the NY/NJ Bayshore doesn’t exactly have the greatest reputation. But Mans thinks people’s perceptions are wrong.

“The harbor estuary is one of the most diverse estuaries in the country because you have all these great fresh water inputs meeting up with the salt water. It turns into this nursery of fish, wildlife and shellfish,” she said, citing measurable improvements in water quality and the return of wildlife in recent years.

Ongoing challenges: Mans is concerned about pollution from combined sewers and runoff from lawns. “We’re still getting bacteria and pathogens that allow us not to harvest shellfish in certain areas or that close bathing beaches and other impacts,” she said.

Part of the long-term solution, she believes, is to generate more environmental interest and awareness among the public.

“It’s really important to me that we get people onto their local waterways because there is still a perception of ‘I would never go in there,’” she said. “We do a great event in Woodbridge, taking people kayaking on the Woodbridge River. It’s the first time that they’ve been on the river, which has a really great park at the headwaters. It’s an amazing resource in the town but people don’t even think about it. If we can get them out on the water and thinking about their local waterways, that gets them to be advocates.”

Thoughts on the lingering impacts of Sandy: Mans is dismayed that officials in many municipalities don’t seem to have learned their lessons about the dangers of allowing high-density development in sensitive areas.

“For us it doesn’t seem like things are really changing on the ground,” she said. “People aren’t saying ‘We need to take the long view’ and asking ‘What’s best for our town and best for our public safety?’ and not build in these areas that we know will get flooded or be inundated permanently by sea-level rise. That’s frustrating for us.”

She’d also like to see more government buyouts of storm-damaged properties.

Other projects she’s working on: NY/NJ Baykeeper is working on creating a new park in the Aberdeen-Matawan area of western Monmouth County. The group is also developing resiliency tools to help communities prepare for future storms, and it’s expanding its existing oyster bed project at the Naval Weapons Station Earle pier in Middletown.

Personal: In her free time, Mans is chair of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, where she says she helps raise the profile of the environment in the political arena and support politicians who stand up for the cause. She also enjoys gardening, running and hiking with her family.