The State We’re In: Barnegat Bay Needs Pollution Reduction Diet

by Michele S. Byers, executive director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

Barnegat Bay needs a diet!

No, it’s not obese, but it’s fed far too many nutrients. These nutrients, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus, come from fertilizers used on thousands of lawns within the bay’s watershed. Just as too much fat and salt make a human body unhealthy, excessive nutrients are ruining the health of one of New Jersey’s most popular waterways.

Barnegat Bay is a beloved part of the Jersey Shore, a little slice of paradise for generations of fishermen, boaters, bird watchers, swimmers, crabbers, clammers and nature lovers.

A recently-released study by Rutgers University’s Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences found that Barnegat Bay and Little Egg Harbor Estuary are in serious ecological decline.

“This study paints a rather bleak picture of the ecological health of the Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor Estuary,” explains lead investigator Mike Kennish, a professor at the institute. The study took place over two decades, when communities west of the bay experienced enormous residential and commercial growth.

Coastal scientists describe the bay as “highly eutrophic,” a condition caused by high levels of nutrients. Eutrophication has resulted in low dissolved oxygen levels in the water, harmful algae blooms, a loss of marine life habitat, and decreased abundance of hardshell clams.

Nutrients are flooding into the bay from the land. When it rains, stormwater runoff washes everything from lawn fertilizers to street oil into streams and rivers and, eventually, into the bay.

The nutrients create a “domino effect.” They promote algae growth, which keeps sunlight from filtering through the water, which reduces oxygen, which kills eelgrass beds so they can no longer provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life.

To reverse this damage, Kennish recommended a “holistic management approach” using multiple strategies, including improving stormwater control systems, limiting fertilizer runoff, practicing smart development, preserving open space and supporting public environmental education and awareness.

The state Senate’s Environmental Committee is backing three bills that would help restore the bay.

One would require the state to set a total maximum daily load, or TMDL, standard for fertilizer-rich pollution flowing into the bay. This would be the “diet” to limit the nitrogen that can get into the bay on any given day.

Governor Christie conditionally vetoed the original version of this bill, saying it set an arbitrary deadline for developing a complex standard. But the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection is using the same type of standard to restore the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be the best hope for Barnegat. It’s the right thing to do, and the Senate Environmental Committee should be commended for persisting in pushing for it.

The two other bills would allow bayside towns and Ocean County to set up new stormwater control systems and tax builders and residents for the cost. The governor vetoed these bills last year, but the Legislature should continue to pursue making them law, given their potential to clean up the bay.

It goes without saying that new taxes or increased fees are tough to take during these difficult economic times. But if Barnegat Bay is to remain a major tourist destination and economic engine, the cost of saving the bay is small in the long run.

To save the bay, we need to:

  • Stop approving development plans on the watershed’s remaining forests and open spaces.
  • Reduce polluted runoff by creating and protecting vegetated buffers on streams and rivers leading to the bay.
  • Step up programs to clean up existing stormwater pollution.
  • Designate Barnegat Bay as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act so that we can create legally enforceable pollution limits for the bay and leverage existing programs to bring it back to health.
  • Stop taking more water from the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, and reduce current water uses through conservation and upgraded infrastructure.

Fortunately, Barnegat Bay has many devoted protectors who are monitoring conditions and demanding action, including the American Littoral Society, Save Barnegat Bay and the Trust for Public Land. If you love Barnegat Bay, support these organizations and learn more!

Go to the American Littoral Society website at, the Save Barnegat Bay website at, or the Trust for Public Land website at

And for more information about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at

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