Is the New Jersey shore on its last legs?

Three Ocean City beaches were reopened Tuesday morning after fears that a sewer system backup on Sunday may have caused waste to flow into storm drains that empty into the ocean. It was the third such closure in Ocean City in the past three weeks.

A day earlier and about an hour and a half north in the barrier island town of Lavalette, Rutgers University scientist Michael Kennish presented to a state legislature a study he co-authored concluding that the ecological decline of Barnegat Bay, which encompasses over 42 miles of the New Jersey shoreline and the majority of Ocean County, is worse than previously estimated – and spreading.

“They are all a direct result of over-development,” said director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter Jeff Tittel of both the beach closures and bay decline. “We say, ‘When it rains, it pours.’ Unfortunately, it’s pouring pollution into our waterways.”

Ocean County has seen an increase of over 60,000 people in the past decade – not counting the estimated 500,000 annual visitors to the area that help keep the state’s $40 billion-per-year coastal tourism industry afloat. More people means more lawn fertilizer, septic waste, pet feces, oil spills, road salt and litter, plus the conversion of forests and wetlands that absorb and filter the pollutants into impervious surfaces like pavements and rooftops.

“It doesn’t get flushed that often – flushed means the seawater coming in and totally exchanging all the water that’s in the Bay,” said Karen Walzer of the Barnegat Bay Partnership. “Because there are only a couple of inlets, it takes approximately three months to totally replace all the water in the Bay. That means any contaminants that might get in there – fertilizers, sediments, any chemicals that might be washing in from the uplands – are going to hang around for an extended period.”

Chemicals from all of that waste are increasingly carried by storm water runoff into rivers, creeks and inlets that ultimately feed into the ocean, causing algae overgrowth, marine life death and water stagnation. Environmentalists say Barnegat Bay is emblematic of a larger decline in New Jersey’s coastal waterways.

“If you run from Bayhead all the way to Cape May, there are many lagoonal areas, or back bay systems, even behind Ocean City and Atlantic City and so on,” Kennish said yesterday. “They are all very susceptible to this problem.”

Researchers are now focusing on the question of whether the tide of deterioration can be reversed. “In the case of Barnegat Bay, over the last 20 years, the water quality has dropped about 70 percent,” Tittel said. “If we continue the same pattern, there will not be a bay in another 20 years. It will be a large, polluted detention basin. … Oceans are more resilient, but again, if every time it rains we’re closing beaches, it will start shaking people to other places. If people on vacation can’t go swimming, they may want to go somewhere else.”

Lacking legislation

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has come under fire for the way he has been handling the environmental emergency. Though he released a 10-point plan two years ago outlining how the state will deal with the Bay, many say he hasn’t held up his end of the bargain – or isn’t moving quickly enough.

“The 10 point action plan is good,” Kennish said. “The blueprints for fixing the problems that are on the table are good. I think they need to be really accelerated, that’s the problem – it’s not enough. The plan to fix it is there, but there’s not enough actual implementation on some of those things.”

Tittel went a step further. “It’s going to take more political will than the governor is showing,” he said, dubbing the 10-point plan a “pointless plan” and ticking off bills vetoed by the “anti-tax” Christie that would have set cleanup requirements for the Bay and a storm water utility to fund cleaning and retrofitting water basins. “He’s going to have to say no to developers and spend some money or we’re going to lose the bay. He’s good at photo ops and beach walks, but the 10 point plan, because it includes no funding for fixing water basins, doesn’t do a lot.”

By the numbers

131 days last year saw beach closures in New Jersey, up 20 percent from 109 days in 2010, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

84 percent of the 2011 closings were due to storm water runoff or sewage leaks.

1.4 million pounds of nitrogen – one of the top toxic chemicals that leeches from waste and leads to algae overgrowth – enters Barnegat Bay each year, an estimated 2/3 of which comes from storm water runoff.

Researchers in Barnegat Bay found a 50 percent decline in the total weight of sea grass – which comprises the habitat of many marine creatures – between 2004 and 2010.

15,000 pounds of shellfish were commercially harvested in Barnegat Bay in 2005, the last year for which data was available, compared to nearly 1.4 million pounds in 1970. Researchers say the industry is no longer viable in the area.

30 percent or more of Barnegat Bay is now developed, which environmentalists say is generally the tipping point at which major waterway changes occur.

10 storm water basins have been fixed by the state out of a total of 2,700 running along Barnegat Bay.

100 million dollars or more will need to be spent on basin restoration over the next 10 years, Kennish estimated.

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