Despite more attention – and action – being paid to Barnegat Bay's health than ever before, the estuary remains in decline, an expert testified Monday before a joint meeting of the state Senate and Assembly environmental committees.
Meanwhile, though the state's ocean waters are healthy, laws must be passed to maintain their condition, activists said.
The discussion of Barnegat Bay as well as the health of the Atlantic Ocean was an all-day event Monday in Ocean County, between the legislative meeting in Lavallette and a number of public events held up and down the shoreline to promote a federal law which would create a "Clean Ocean Zone" between the Jersey Shore and Long Island.
Looking at the ocean and bay together is "a study in contrast," said Willie deCamp, founder of the Save Barnegat Bay environmental organization.
Bay's Decline Spreading
Dr. Michael J. Kennish, considered by many to be the foremost authority on research into the Barnegat Bay estuary, told legislators that despite cleanup efforts and attention, the waterway is still on the decline.
His latest research shows that the effects of eutrophication – an ecosystem's response to the addition of substances – are making their way southward toward the central and southern areas of the bay.
The most obvious symptom: the spread of sea nettles, stinging jellyfish whose populations increase with the addition of nitrogen, often from fertilizer runoff, to the waterway. The northern portion of the estuary, especially the Metedeconk River in Brick and the Toms River between Toms River and Berkeley townships, is often cluttered with the small creatures. But the southern bay, along Long Beach Island, is largely nettle-free and generally healthier.
That's all changing, Kennish said, and will continue to change unless something is done.
"This system can't handle the kind of conditions that are existing now in Ocean County," said Kennish.
The answer, he said, would be retrofitting the county's estimated 2,700 stormwater basins to prevent runoff from fertilizer and other chemicals from making its way to the bay. But retrofitting would be costly. Under a joint state-county program, less than half of 1 percent of the existing basins have been marked for improvement.
A bill that would have allowed Ocean County to create a utility responsible for more retrofitting, supported by fees from builders, was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie last year, drawing ire from Democrats that was echoed Monday.
The all-Republican county freeholder board opposed the bill, saying it would have levied a tax on Ocean County residents alone, when many of the basins are located on state property and the bay itself is a state resource.
Kennish told legislators the bay should be declared legally "impaired," which would invoke an enforceable "total maximum daily load," or TMDL, of chemicals that could enter the bay under the federal Clean Water Act. But impairment, he said, is determined only by oxygen level measurements, not nitrogen measurements, which are the main cause of the problems spreading in the bay estuary.
"I'd testify that the bay is impaired in a court of law," said Kennish, but under the state's current standard, the declaration may not be possible.
For his part, deCamp also said he supported declaring the bay impaired and establishing a TMDL.
"It will give legal force to protect the bay from too many nutrients going into it," deCamp said. "It could be anything between not extending sewer lines which would promote more development, to requiring some of the more than 2,000 storm basins be remediated."
Establishing an enforceable TMDL could also pave the way to additional land preservation and revised local planning policies, such as limiting the use of grass in residential areas to avoid over-fertilization.
Kennish said without intervention to remediate the bay's health and move forward with cleaner practices, the sea nettles, expanded "dead zones" and a sharp reduction in the number of shellfish and finfish species could begin to plague the entire estuary within the next 10 to 20 years.
Ocean Protection Sought
A silver lining this week, however, was a celebration of cleaner ocean waters.
As the legislative meeting continued in Lavallette, staffers at Clean Ocean Action were having their own rally in Seaside Park, before policy advocates from that group biked north to testify at the state hearing.
The Clean Ocean Action group was supporting a so-called "Clean Ocean Zone" to be established under federal law which would ban certain activities such as oil drilling and the permitting of liquid natural gas terminals offshore.
"We've been through some very rough times along the Jersey Shore," said Cindy Zipf, the group's founder. "We were the ocean dumping capital of the world, had medical waste washing ashore, dead dolphins washing up. We were the nation's laughing stock."
"Now, today, we're a premier destination, and a lot of people take it for granted that it's always going to be clean now," Zipf said.
Opponents to establishing the Clean Ocean Zone have argued ocean drilling and offshore energy terminals are safe, and would create an economic boon and jobs in the region.
The Clean Ocean Action event was part of the group's "Tour for the Shore," where volunteers were bicycling and kayaking from Cape May to Montauk Point, N.Y., the region that would fall under the proposed federal protection zone.
has been making the trek between New Jersey and New York in her outrigger kayak in support of the law.
"The perfect testimony [in favor of the Clean Ocean Zone] is all of the people on the beach today," said Margo Pellegrino, looking out at the packed beaches of Seaside Park.
This summer, the state Department of Environmental Protection as well as Ocean County authorities have been conducting regular water testing at all local ocean and bay beaches.