Rivers, Lakes Show Some Gains, Some Losses in Water Quality

Jon Hurdle | December 2, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
Despite less pollution from wastewater treatment plants, stormwater remains a problem, DEP report finds
Credit: Jim Lukach/Flickr
The Black River at Hacklebarney State Park

New Jersey’s rivers, lakes and shoreline waters show declining levels of some pollutants, but many still don’t meet official standards for designated uses such as drinking water supply and fish consumption, according to the latest report on the condition of the state’s waters.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued the New Jersey Integrated Water Quality Assessment Report for 2016 in draft form in September of this year to meet federal requirements for a statewide assessment of water conditions every two years.

In all six categories of designated water use, the number of water bodies failing to meet the standard exceeded those that supported that use.

For drinking water supply, the report stated that 43% of waters did not meet that use, exceeding the 38% that did meet the standard, while 19% had insufficient information to determine whether they qualified.

All New Jersey waters are designated for fish consumption, but fewer than 1% complied with that standard, while 35% didn’t meet the use and the remainder could not be assessed because of insufficient data, the report stated. The main causes of impairment of fish-consumption waters were mercury and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, in fish, according to the report.

For recreation such as swimming and boating — a use designated for all of the state’s waters — only 24% of rivers, lakes and ponds met the standard, exceeded by 43% that did not. But all the state’s ocean beaches were found to be fully swimmable.

Credit: Peter Miller/Flickr
Margate City; all the state’s ocean beaches were found to be fully swimmable.

Even though the report was based on a snapshot of conditions more than three years ago, it’s likely to be an accurate portrait of the long-term trends in the state’s water quality, said Bill Kibler, director of policy at Raritan Headwaters, a watershed association that contributed to the report.

He called the report “a much more honest assessment” than the previous one in 2014, and he praised DEP for including climate change as a significant determinant of water quality.

Although there are some signs of improvement from the last report in 2014, the overall picture indicates water quality is far below where it should be, said Elliott Ruga, policy and communications director at the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, an environmental nonprofit.

“In how many streams in New Jersey can you eat the fish, drink the water, and swim in? Very few,” Ruga said. “We’re in worse condition than we thought we were.”

The 302-page report takes a huge amount of state resources to compile every two years, and reflects the requirements of the Clean Water Act, which seeks to manage pollution rather than reduce it, Ruga said.

Stormwater runoff a concern

The report shows that the authorities have succeeded through regulation in reducing pollution from wastewater treatment plants, he said. But stormwater runoff continues to be a big source of impairment to water bodies because regulation only addresses new development.

“There’s really no way to regulate the already-built environment,” Ruga said.

Among the biggest causes of impairment in recreational waters is E. coli, a pathogen that lives in the lower intestines of humans and animals, the report stated.

For drinking water supplies, the report identified arsenic as the cause of impairment in 95% of the assessed water bodies. The prevalence of arsenic was attributed mainly to an improvement in detection methods.

All water bodies are designed for use by aquatic life, but only 17% fully support that use, while 64% do not, partly reflecting impairment with total phosphorus, the sum of all phosphorus compounds that occur in different forms, used in fertilizer.

Statewide levels of total phosphorus and nitrogen dropped in the latest report, continuing a 30-year trend. But nitrate levels rose due to wastewater treatment plant ammonia treatments, and total dissolved solids (TDS) and chlorides increased as a result of runoff from farms and developed areas, plus the use of de-icing salts on roads.

Metals decline in Raritan region

The report also focused on the Raritan Water Region, covering all or part of six counties in central and northern New Jersey. It found a sharp fall in the concentration of metals and ammonia in the region’s waters, thanks to limits on discharges from “point source” polluters like wastewater treatment plants, the cleanup of contaminated sites, and a reduction in manufacturing plants.

Credit: JenG/Flickr
The Raritan River

The latest metals decline resulted in a 95% drop in the number of impairments in that category reported to the so-called 303(d) list under the federal Clean Water Act, as required every two years.

Still, researchers found that biological systems were impaired in the region because of its extensive area of impervious surface, which was a result of development. Impervious surfaces, which generate stormwater runoff, cover more than 10% of natural “buffers” along the region’s rivers and streams, degrading 90% of biological communities, according to the report.

“Without a buffer to reduce the effects of stressors within the watershed, the biological communities are inundated and unable to recover,” the report stated.

Kibler of Raritan Headwaters said its conclusions about his watershed amount to a “C” grade. “It’s not horrible, but we should be doing much better than that. We are seeing some improvement in certain areas, but we are a long way from hitting the mark.”

The Raritan region was the latest of five New Jersey areas being studied on a rotating basis over a 10-year period, beginning in 2014.

Climate-change effects

Meanwhile, the report predicted that water supplies for all uses are likely to be affected by climate-change effects, including sea-level rise, increased water temperatures and bigger storms. After a summer in which climate change was blamed for algal blooms that closed many New Jersey lakes, the report urged more planning to anticipate the effects on water supply.

Credit: Hope Abrams/Flickr
Lake Hopatcong was closed this summer due to an algal bloom.

Drinking-water intake wells on the Delaware River, for example, may be threatened by tidal saltwater as a result of sea-level rise, the report stated.

And it warned that higher water temperatures in rivers and streams could worsen contamination with arsenic and other metals, while reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen on which imperiled species depend.

“New Jersey should integrate consideration of the effects of changing climatic conditions into its planning, assessment, and regulatory programs,” the report stated.

Although climate-change projections are subject to uncertainty, New Jersey “does not have to wait for better models or more data” before implementing measures to protect its waters from the effects of climate change, the report stated.

Its recommendations include developing incentives for investment in mitigation, adaptation and infrastructure needs to respond to climate change, and increasing the responsiveness of regulatory programs to recognize the realities of climate change.