Governor Christie’s Barnegat Bay Initiative Critiqued

Governor Christie’s unprecedented Barnegat Bay initiative contains much that is positive and some elements that require further attention.

A shorter version of this op-ed appeared in the Asbury Park Press on Friday, December 23.

Governor Christie and Barnegat Bay:
Solid accomplishments and significant gaps

By William deCamp Jr.

When comparing Governor Christie’s performance to that of his predecessors over the last three decades, it is impossible not to feel positively with respect to Barnegat Bay. Much has been accomplished.

An overview of the Christie administration’s policy toward New Jersey’s largest water body, however, reveals gaps in his ten-point plan that must be filled if Barnegat Bay’s decline is to be reversed, and if the Governor is to take his place alongside those of his predecessors who have been benefactors to the bay.

Most prominent on the positive side is Governor Christie’s signing into law the strongest-in-the-nation fertilizer law whose basic concepts originated in Save Barnegat Bay’s Lavallette office. Starting in January 2013 any bag of lawn fertilizer a homeowner pulls off a store shelf will have at least 20% of its nitrogen in slow release form. This will benefit the bay greatly by reducing the amount of nitrogen carried by groundwater and runoff to the bay.

A second significant area of accomplishment is the increased funding of improved stormwater detention basins. Although the number of upgraded basins is but a tiny percentage of those in the bay’s watershed, these new initiatives will teach us much about how to capture the nitrogen in rainwater on land, before it can run to the bay to become food for harmful algae.

A third success is an effort to conserve more open space, most recently over 400 acres at the Boy Scout Camp in Waretown.

These focused attempts to benefit Barnegat Bay need, however, to be supplemented by other efforts if the bay’s decline is to be reversed.

Barnegat Bay is like a garden getting too much fertilizer and no weeding. Excess nitrogen carried by rainwater to the bay causes the wrong plants to flourish and healthy plants and marine life to suffer. The situation is urgent. The eelgrass that forms the underwater forest that supports a healthy estuarine ecosystem is rapidly disappearing.

The key contributor to the bay’s decline is the nitrogen deposited from the atmosphere by rain. On account of our society’s excessive burning of fossil fuels there is already too much nitrogen in the rain as it falls.

By picturing a raindrop falling with too much nitrogen already in it, we can derive four basic policy goals for healing Barnegat Bay.

– First, we need to burn less fossil fuel.

– Second, we need to end overdevelopment so that forested areas remain to absorb nitrogen and prevent it from reaching the bay.

– Third, we need to revamp Ocean County’s stormwater management so that every possible drop of rainwater passes through a planted area for nitrogen removal on land prior to reaching the bay.

– Fourth we need to stop adding nitrogen to the bay when we do unnecessary and improper fertilizing, when we fail to clean up after our dogs and cats, and when we use nitrogen based deicers on our sidewalks in the winter months.

By approaching the problem from this broad conceptual framework we can see a major and presumably inadvertent failing of Governor Christie’s ten point plan to reverse the decline of Barnegat Bay: it is silent with regard to clean air policy. Without a concerted effort to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, Barnegat Bay cannot be saved.

The administration’s record with respect to clean air is mixed. On the positive side they have sued the state of Pennsylvania to clean up a huge source of nitrogen emissions from a coal powered plant across the Delaware River from Warren County.

To the bay’s detriment, however, the Christie administration has withdrawn New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of ten northeastern states. This retrograde action can only harm Barnegat Bay as well as the health of New Jersey’s citizens.

The administration has also been deficient in its efforts to curtail overdevelopment in the Barnegat Bay watershed. They have indicated support for a bill in the legislature that would allow sanitary sewers – and the overdevelopment they enable — to be extended to vast areas of Ocean County. Lakewood, for example, could soon become the third largest city in the state of New Jersey.

Barnegat Bay simply cannot survive such intensive overdevelopment. As paved surfaces proliferate, the planted areas that intercept nitrogen before it reaches the bay will disappear. The bay’s decline will then accelerate rather than reverse.

A further disappointment is the administration’s allowing the Fukushima-style nuclear reactor at Oyster Creek – America’s oldest – to continue operating without cooling towers until 2019. Between now and then, Oyster Creek will strain a volume of water equal to 2.3% of the bay’s total volume of life every day. [source: NJDEP]. This is simply unsupportable.

A further necessary action is for the Department of Environmental Protection to acknowledge what the rest of world accepts as fact: Barnegat Bay is environmentally “impaired”. Officially declaring that obvious fact will strengthen regulators’ power to keep nitrogen out of Barnegat Bay.

Finally, the Governor must abandon his ill advised and legally questionable initiative to allow state bureaucrats the discretion to issue waivers to our state’s fundamental environmental laws. Barnegat Bay must continue to be protected by existing regulations without the threat of behind the scenes power brokers pushing through harmful waivers.

These deficiencies can all be remedied. There are many different ways to address and readdress such problems as air pollution, overdevelopment, and the permitting process.

If the Christie administration can fill these gaps with meaningful initiatives, Governor Christie may leave a legacy as a benefactor to Barnegat Bay alongside Governor Driscoll, who conserved Island Beach, Governor Cahill who signed the Tidal Wetlands Act, and Governor Byrne, who signed the Pinelands Act.

But there is work to be done, and there are strong forces that must be stood up to.

William deCamp Jr. is president of Save Barnegat Bay.

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