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Our View: Plan to heal Barnegat Bay
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Our View: Plan to heal Barnegat Bay

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A waterspout formed right behind this resident’s house on Barnegat Bay in Toms River, New Jersey, on May 8.

Nearly all of Ocean County’s 33 municipalities are located within the 660-square-mile Barnegat Bay watershed, which is the lifeline to a multitude of aquatic vegetation, shellfish beds, fish habitats and waterfowl nesting grounds, not to mention some pretty amazing sunsets and sunrises.

There also are more than 550,000 people — twice that number in summer — who live there.

Protecting the bay from the people who love to live next to it and use it has been a 50-year skirmish.

Environmentalists have been sounding the alarm about pollution in Barnegat Bay since the 1990s, and the state has been implementing plans in response. We know because we’ve been editorializing at least that long about saving the bay, cajoling, chiding, but more often cheering the efforts.

The bay is heavily used by residents and tourists. People want to build homes along it, fish and play in it, but all that attention is killing it. Nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers placed on lawns have been washing into the bay for decades, leading to algae blooms that kill off marine life. Nuisance species, such as the stinging sea nettles, have moved in as a result of the loss of native marine life.

The latest effort to preserve the bay was unveiled in late October, when public officials, scientists and others assembled at the bay to discuss a “detailed and far-reaching plan to improve water quality, increase the number of days that bay beaches are open for swimming, increase the number of shellfish, and address an explosion of jellyfish in the bay that is making parts of it difficult to use,” according to The Associated Press’ coverage.

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The groups who assembled that late day in October said they are not done fighting for the bay’s health. Many were involved well before the state got serious in 2010 and adopted a 10-point plan that included some of the toughest standards limiting how much nitrogen can be sold in fertilizer. Nitrogen in fertilizer can run off lawns and into the bay, lowering oxygen levels, which harms fish, shellfish and plant life, leading to larger jellyfish populations and algae blooms.

But 11 years later, the plan still lacks some teeth and details. For example, the state still has not adopted a central goal of scientists and environmentalists: setting daily limits on the amount of pollutants that can be allowed to make their way into the bay.

Shawn LaTourette, the state’s environmental protection commissioner, said the state is planning some regulatory changes to get to those goals.

And those goals seem to be better defined than they had been previously. For example, one target objective is to increase the area of shellfish beds open for harvesting by at least 5%. Another is to maintain nearly 13,000 acres of submerged aquatic vegetation and another 21,000 acres of tidal wetlands. Other specifics include restoring the hard clam population to 370 million, something not reached since the 1980s (last checked 10 years ago, the population was 224 million). It’s about time.

After decades of study, we know the bay needs better protection. For so long, though, action mostly came from the community and environmental groups.

Now, it’s easy to see that the sense of urgency is increased, like when LaTourrette says the state is “ground zero for climate impacts, including rising sea levels, more intense and frequent storm events and flooding, and increasing temperature.”

This is a cue for government and regulatory agencies with the power to drive change and action, like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and county and local governments.

Adopt the regulations and enforce them for the love of Barnegat Bay. Don’t make the epitaph of this magnificent, vulnerable watershed “It was loved to death.”

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