DEP Must Declare Bay Impaired for Nitrogen

Barnegat Bay’s decline cannot be reversed until the New Jersey Department of Environmental declares the bay “impaired” for nitrogen.

As printed in the Asbury Park Press April 18, 2012

NJDEP must declare Barnegat Bay
“Impaired” if it is to be saved

The fate of Barnegat Bay may be swayed by a concept that is obvious to New Jersey’s citizens but opaque to its leaders: Barnegat Bay, formerly a natural resource teeming with life, is today “impaired”.

To the swimmer, the fisherman, the boater, and the homeowner impairment is a simple concept readily perceived. Children come running out of the water crying from contact with stinging sea nettles. Fishermen are told at bait shops that they must travel far to find good fishing.

Boaters can see the ubiquitous jellyfish that are replacing the finfish that were formerly abundant. Lagoon homeowners see masses of algae floating next to what they had thought was their dream home.

Empty seine nets leave waders with a wistful longing for the cornucopia of days gone by.

To the common sense of the citizen, Barnegat Bay is unquestionably impaired, or as the dictionary says, “diminished in ability, value, or excellence; weakened or damaged.”

But what is as clear as an empty swimming beach to New Jersey’s residents and vacationers seems incomprehensible to the public officials of our state.

“Impairment” is a term which has carried legal consequences under America’s Clean Water Act since the 1980’s. Under that act the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) has been required to take action to declare Barnegat Bay’s impairment and to set strict quantitative standards for reversing it.

Had NJDEP respected this legal requirement, some combination of steps such as refraining from extending sewer lines into pristine areas, creating larger protective buffers for creeks and streams, lowering zoning densities, and remediating storm water systems would have to be undertaken against measured quantitative standards.

Scientists have known since the 1960’s that excessive plant food in the form of nitrogen is the greatest problem plaguing coastal water bodies throughout the United States, including Barnegat Bay. Scientists from Rutgers, Princeton, and Woods Hole have confirmed this fact repeatedly.

Nitrogen from air pollution and fertilizer lands on our roofs, our pavement, and our lawns to run off into Barnegat Bay without ever encountering vegetated areas where terrestrial plants can remove it. Instead it is sluiced into Barnegat Bay to become harmful algae food.

A part of Barnegat Bay’s tragedy is that the scientists and those employing them at NJDEP are unwilling to accept what residents have long seen and what scientists within the academy have long unanimously affirmed: Barnegat Bay is impaired by excessive loads of nitrogen.

Scientists in general often fail to understand that the “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” mentality that is the definition of excellence in a scientific study is far different from the precautionary prudence by which sound public policy is created. Scientists may be susceptible to the flaw of studying a problem until it is too late to solve it.

Another all too human possibility is that the Department’s scientists may be consciously or unconsciously unwilling to inform their superiors of facts they do not want to hear.

If New Jersey were to declare Barnegat Bay impaired, public officials would have to face an unavoidable fact of life: Barnegat Bay can never be saved if imprudent development is not restrained.

Toms River and Lakewood are already the eighth and seventh largest municipalities in New Jersey respectively. They have plans to expand. The science is clear. If Ocean County continues to be among the fastest growing in the nation, Barnegat Bay will be devastated.

In a world in which developers hold much political power through the mechanism of lax or non-existent campaign finance laws, it will take moral courage by governors, legislators, county party chairmen, and freeholders to say ‘no’ to developers as a necessary requirement for allowing our state’s largest water body, Barnegat Bay, to survive.

Similar courage must be found or instilled within the scientists at NJDEP, who know full well that excess nitrogen is gravely damaging Barnegat Bay.

The Department’s frequent excuse that excessive nitrogen “may only be one of Barnegat Bay’s many problems” is unconscionably dilatory.

The time has come to refrain from using the study of a problem as a rationale for postponing its solution. New Jersey’s leaders and scientists must declare what its citizens and university scientists already know: Barnegat Bay is impaired.

William deCamp Jr. is president of Save Barnegat Bay.

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