Fertilizer Runoff Is Killing Our Waterways

We called it, simply, The Test. I grew up on a house on Barnegat Bay in Chadwick Beach, New Jersey. With four little children scampering around, my parents had a hard and fast rule for us and our friends: No one was allowed to play in the front yard, on the docks or anywhere outside without wearing a life preserver. Whether we were playing baseball, digging up worms, or going crabbing, those big orange puffy preservers had to be on, and buckled, at all times.

We hated it. The only way to freedom was to pass a test by swimming all the way across the lagoon and back. It was a rite of passage. Those of us who were ready would talk about it for weeks. We'd practice and ask questions of our older siblings. I remember lying in bed the night before, wondering what I'd do if I got tired. Would I drown? Would I have to wait another month before trying again?

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area now, but I come home to Barnegat Bay every summer with my wife and our two kids. It's a highlight of our year. This summer our daughter Olivia was going to take her shot. She'd been practicing at the pool for weeks. My dad, unable to resist the urge to spoil his granddaughter, sweetened the pot with the promise of a bowl of ice cream at the end.

She didn't get the chance. They say you can never go home again, and when it comes to water pollution in New Jersey, maybe it's true. That's because, for the second summer in a row, Barnegat Bay is infested with stinging sea nettles -- a type of jellyfish.

I hated having to tell my kids they couldn't go in the water, but what really stings (sorry) is why the bay is full of sea nettles. The infestation's no fluke -- it's part of an ecological crisis that's affecting estuaries all across the country. Worst of all, it's happening needlessly.

Anyone who lives near a bay or estuary has probably seen the warnings stenciled on storm drains. The ones in my neighborhood in Alameda, California, are unequivocal: "No Dumping! Drains to Bay." What they probably should say is "D'oh! Everything Drains to Bay."

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Barnegat Bay is second only to Chesapeake Bay among our inland waterways when it comes to destructively high levels of nitrogen. The excess nutrients from that nitrogen are what cause weirdness like red algae blooms you can see from space, sea nettle infestations, and fish kills. Ultimately, unchecked nutrient runoff sucks the oxygen out of the water and creates a dead zone like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. You know, the one that's always being described as being the size of New Jersey.

A lot of the nitrogen that's polluting the Chesapeake comes from factory chicken farms. Having grown up in Ocean County, I know it's not New Jersey's chicken basket. So how did so much nitrogen get into Barnegat?

Just stroll through the neighborhoods that line the bay (and the rivers that empty into it) on a hot summer day and admire all the green, beautiful lawns. To keep your lawn looking as deeply green as your neighbor's, you ladle on the nitrogen fertilizer and keep the grass watered. When fertilizer runs off the lawn as you're watering, the nitrogen chickens come home to roost.

This is not a problem only because I'd like my kids to be able to take a dip on a hot day. Barnegat Bay provides more than $3.3 billion in economic benefits annually to New Jersey. It's the state's most-used waterway. Are we really going to stand by and let it die because the next-door neighbors' lawn is putting ours to shame?

Maybe not. While I was back in Jersey for our family vacation, the environmental committees for the State Senate and Assembly met in the Municipal Building in the town of  Toms River (where I went to school and my father used to be mayor) to consider four bills that might help save the bay. The meeting was packed -- standing room only. Hundreds of people listened for nearly six hours as the committees heard testimony. In the end, all four bills were approved and will now go on to the state legislature for consideration this fall.

One bill would ban phosphorous and limit the amount of nitrogen allowed in fertilizers, as well as create new restrictions for applying fertilizer near waterways. Public education on the over-use of fertilizers would also be required. 

The other three bills focus on reducing stormwater runoff. One would start a fund to inspect and repair Ocean County's stormwater retention basins. Another would create a pilot stormwater authority in Ocean County to serve as a possible model for the rest of the state. (Amazingly, New Jersey is one of the few states that hasn't already set up local stormwater authorities.) The fourth bill would develop standards for restoration of soil destroyed during construction activities -- hard-packed soil leads to more runoff.

If all four bills pass, one of the biggest threats to Barnegat Bay might be neutralized. It won't be easy. Although the Sierra Club, Environment New Jersey and other environmental groups have been working hard to save Barnegat for years, there will be opposition -- from developers, from fertilizer makers, even from the New Jersey Turfgrass Association. If they succeed in stopping us from taking action now, the bay as we know it may die.

My daughter couldn't take the test this summer. Let's hope the NJ State Legislature passes theirs.

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