By Jeff Tittel
This summer, New Jersey’s water problems have hit home. The threat is everywhere, from beaches and bays to inland lakes and streams to reservoirs and drinking water. Stormwater runoff, leaky sewer pipes, failing septics and unchecked agricultural uses are bringing nutrients and sewer overflows into our waterways. Toxic chemicals from our industrial past contaminate our water.
The state has caused this by failing to adequately address watershed planning, stormwater management, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) standards to limit pollutants and cleanup of toxic sites. We are having a water crisis and a climate crisis, and the two are interrelated.
The most alarming example is Lake Hopatcong. The largest recreational lake in the state has been closed for 4 weeks due to massive algae blooms. Nearly 90 percent of Lake Hopatcong’s shore is developed, increasing stormwater runoff that dumps nutrients into the water. Greenwood Lake, another of our largest recreational lakes, has also been shut down. Both lakes are managed by toothless commissions that don’t deal with land use and stormwater issues. The result is a toxic brew made even worse by climate change creating warmer water and more rain. Our lakes could begin to eutrophy, killing off aquatic life. The water will begin to stink. Our lakes will become giant, stagnant pools of water.
Other lakes face similar algae threats. The Spruce Run reservoir hasn’t been open for swimming for more than a month. Swartswood Lake and Rosedale Lake have been closed for extended periods. Only 3 percent of New Jersey waterways meet all the criteria for being swimmable, drinkable and fishable. DEP said nutrifying of our lakes was a “low priority because it does not directly relate to human health issues.” That is false. The state does not use nutrients as a factor in their cleanup plans for the lakes.
Coastal areas are also suffering. There have been 100 beach closures and 370 swimming advisories because of high bacterial levels between 2014 and 2018. Sea level rise is causing increases in sunny-day flooding. Barnegat Bay remains one of the most ecologically threatened bays in the nation. Clinging jellyfish that thrive on algae have spread from Barnegat Bay as far south as North Wildwood, putting much of the coastline at risk. Cases of flesh-eating bacteria are being reported more frequently in Delaware Bay.
Dangerous chemicals are contaminating our water. Lead in drinking water is a pervasive problem. Children in Newark and other cities have more lead in their blood than in Flint, Michigan. More than 30 towns in Bergen County alone have tested with high lead levels. Pollution from runoff gets into our water systems and corrodes pipes, causing more lead to leach into the water. Nearly 20 percent of people in New Jersey are exposed to PFOA and PFOS, dangerous chemicals used in Teflon and flame-retardant materials. Chromium, TCEs, PCEs, benzene and other chemicals have also polluted our water. There are 3,500 sites in NJ where groundwater is contaminated within the time of travel to drinking water wells.
New Jersey should learn from other states, including New York, which has a strong program to go after Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) and lake management rules. The Lake George Commission has real authority to regulate stormwater and control overdevelopment to protect their lake. The Lake Tahoe Commission in California has similar power. Lake Hopatcong is our Lake George and needs the same protections.
The Murphy administration has let things worsen by leaving Christie-era rollbacks of critical water protections in place. We must reverse rollbacks and strengthen rules on Stormwater Management, Flood Hazard and Water Quality Planning. We need to restore Septic Management Districts and expand stream buffers. We must rehabilitate wetlands and natural systems, and halt logging projects. We need better watershed planning. CAFRA rules should not allow overdevelopment in environmentally sensitive areas. We need real TMDL standards limiting pollutants.
DEP needs to act quickly to prevent an ecological disaster. We need funding to replace lead pipes and other aging infrastructure, and to retrofit stormwater systems in existing developments. We must invest in more restoration projects and reform agricultural uses of pollutants. We need to accelerate cleanup of toxic sites. We also must focus on combating climate change, including a moratorium on all fossil-fuel projects. Is the glass half empty or half full? This year, you can’t swim in it, touch it, and you definitely don’t want to drink it.
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