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NJ seeks to treat, not prevent, toxic algae
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NJ seeks to treat, not prevent, toxic algae

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Algae bloom

Algae overfed in warm water can grow into a bloom that becomes toxic. That prompted the state Department of Environmental Protection to issue warnings and close bathing beaches 56 times last year.

Algae are simple plants found in water, typically green from their chlorophyll, and many are single-celled. They are naturally harmless, but when the water warms and they get too much to eat, some kinds of algae produce toxin in such quantities that it kills much aquatic life and threatens the health of people.

In response to these algae blooms, usually in freshwater bodies, the state Department of Environmental Protection issues warnings and closes bathing beaches — 56 times last year.

This problem has been around a long time and is getting worse.

In 2016, the Barnegat Bay Partnership’s five-year report on the long-term decline of water quality in the Ocean County estuary said, “The most worrisome challenges identified in previous reports remain unchanged.” These included fertilizer runoff from lawns that feeds algae blooms.

While Gov. Chris Christie had proposed a 10-point plan in 2011 for rescuing the bay, Jeff Tittel, then director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called it pointless because it didn’t address land use in the bay’s watershed. Two years later, Christie vetoed a cap on pollution entering the bay.

The Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy seemed to take a step forward in 2019, authorizing local governments and authorities to create stormwater utilities that could limit runoff. Properties could be charged fees based on how much of their surfaces won’t absorb rainfall, letting it run off and carry fertilizer, pet feces and such into storm sewers and nearby bodies of water. Such runoff fees are a well-designed tax used by 40 other states, but in over-taxed New Jersey local governments have been loath to increase the burden on property owners.

New Jersey also is a national leader in putting human sewage into its bodies of water — more than 23 billion gallons of sewage annually.

In cities with combined systems for stormwater and sewage, heavy rain causes sewage to overflow into the stormwater pipes and into waterways instead of to treatment plants. Of the 84 municipalities in the U.S. that still have such systems, 21 are in New Jersey. Nearly all serve North Jersey cities, with only Camden and Gloucester City still using combined systems in South Jersey.

At the Jersey Shore, though, barrier-island municipalities tend to have high percentages of impervious surfaces — paved, covered with buildings, even with buried plastic to discourage weeds. These send pollutants into the bays and ocean. Runoff is the major cause of the degradation of Barnegat Bay in Ocean County.

Last month, the Drinking Water Quality Institute, which advises the DEP, announced an effort to find a way to deal with toxic algae blooms.

But instead of reducing the runoff into waterways that overfeed the algae, the institute expects to find and recommend to the DEP methods for treating the water and algae to protect human health from the blooms.

A top official in the DEP’s water-quality division said prevention would be better than a cure, according to NJ Spotlight. The best mitigation of potentially toxic algae would ensure that blooms don’t occur, said Kristin Tedesco, manager of the DEP’s Bureau of Water System Engineering. That could be accomplished “if water systems can take steps to avoid a bloom taking place or to really reduce their nutrient loading,” she said.

Tittel, now retired from leading the Sierra Club in the state, said the institute wasn’t “talking enough about nutrients, which is the major problem.” He said the DEP isn’t doing enough to control the use of phosphorus and nitrogen, which feed the algae problem.

We’re concerned that the state’s new approach might provide symptomatic relief from the human problems with algae blooms while leaving the pollution to continue killing the lakes, bays and waterways. That would be a recipe for ever-worsening environmental degradation.

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