Estuaries feeling urban pressure

Cars, pets, fertilizer pollute coastal waters

May 21, 2000|By Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood | Gilbert M. Gaul and Anthony R. Wood,knight-ridder/tribune

BERKELEY TOWNSHIP, N.J — BERKELEY TOWNSHIP, N.J. -- Chris Smith and David Friedland are poking holes in the perfectly manicured lawn of Constantine Afansief's home 10 miles west of Barnegat Bay, in Ocean County, N.J.

Row upon row of compact new homes line the street. Each was carved out of uplands once thick with pine trees and hardwoods. After the trees were ripped out, the topsoil was scraped and covered with sod.

To the untrained eye, the lawn appears perfect. Yet when Smith tries to force a slim metal rod into the grass, to measure its ability to drain, the rod resists after an inch or two.

"The soil is really compact here," says Smith, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "This is pretty bad."

Afansief nods. "I tried to put in some plants, but I couldn't get down deep enough."

Now rainwater is not able to soak into the earth. Instead, Smith explains, it spills into the street, carrying lawn fertilizers with it. The nitrogen and phosphates become part of a chemical cocktail that eventually finds its way into the bay. Scientists call this nonpoint pollution, a term for pollution that accompanies sprawl. It is far and away the biggest threat to Barnegat Bay and dozens of other estuaries.

"It's the pollution you get from too many people wanting to be in the same place," says Michael Kennish, a Rutgers University marine scientist.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the biggest environmental threats to Barnegat Bay were from sewage and industrial discharges. Regulators thought they solved those problems with stricter laws and by funding regional sewer systems. Water quality did improve. But the sewers unleashed a wave of development along back bays, with the population doubling in two decades.

The additional pollution from development, cars, pets and increased boat traffic began to affect the bay. Excess nitrogen and phosphates accumulated. Algal blooms formed. The water became murky. Oxygen was depleted. Fecal bacteria counts rose. Beach closures increased.

"When you take these soils that are well-drained and you change the cover, you change the dynamics of the way water flows," says Friedland, director of the Ocean County Soil Conservation District. "People don't understand what they do here has an impact out there. We're trying to change that."

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