A Watershed Moment for Barnegat Bay – Land&People

On a mild and sunny afternoon in May, I’m in a small skiff amid the salt marsh islands at the lower end of New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay—a narrow, 40-mile-long estuary separated from the Atlantic Ocean by a thin band of barrier islands. Aside from the hum of the skiff’s motor, all is silent, and the air is so clear that the cottony clouds seem close enough to touch. Suddenly a gray bird erupts from the water into flight. “It’s a willet,” states naturalist Fred Lesser, lifting binoculars to his eyes. “See the white streaks on its wings.”

Lesser identifies terns, plovers, and egrets as we head south past Little Egg Harbor, where the estuary empties into the ocean, houses crowd the shoreline, and Atlantic City rises in the distance.

Located within an easy drive of New York City, Philadelphia, and other mid-Atlantic population centers, Barnegat Bay is a beloved landscape—and also a fragile and beleaguered one. The estuary and its 425,000-acre watershed—which stretches inland into the state’s famed pinelands—contains a wide variety of habitats, including forested upland, riparian wetland, sedge islands, and sandy beaches. A 1997 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study called the Barnegat Bay watershed “one of the most important migratory corridors in the hemisphere for shorebirds, passerines, waterfowl, and raptors.” The same report listed 156 species of special emphasis, including 17 that are federal- or state-listed as threatened or endangered or species of concern. And all this natural bounty depends on water, which moves freely through the region’s porous soils. Fresh water from the uplands feeds slowflowing lowland rivers and then, approaching the ocean, nourishes freshwater and saltwater marshes and the bay.

But development around Barnegat Bay is threatening not only the estuary itself but also the bay’s fish and other aquatic resources, along with much of the region’s natural abundance, the drinking water of its residents, and its prized quality of life. Ocean County is the fastest-growing county in the state, especially where new vacation cottages, second homes, and retirement communities sprout around the bay. The watershed’s population increased fivefold between 1960 and 2007, with some towns experiencing growth as high as 20 percent in the last two decades. The population of 565,000 year-round residents often spikes to a million during the summer. Since the bay and its watershed are connected underground, pollution from development threatens the health of the bay and of the entire ecosystem as well as water destined for the faucet.

Public agencies and conservation groups, including The Trust for Public Land, have been working for decades to protect the bay and its watershed by conserving key parcels of land, preventing development and the associated pollution. In 1995, TPL published The Century Plan, a report detailing 100 high-priority sites for protection, and has since helped conserve more than 11,000 acres. In all, more than 24,000 acres of the priority lands identified in The Century Plan have been protected.

But while progress has been substantial, it has not been sufficient. To reinvigorate the effort, TPL is using state-of-the-art geographic information system (GIS) technology that was not even available when the first report was written. A new publication based on this work, Barnegat Bay 2020: A Vision for the Future of Conservation, makes a case for land conservation as a water-quality protection tool and identifies the highest-priority parcels to protect.

“Thirty or forty years ago, Barnegat Bay was filthy,” says TPL project manager Kathy Haake, who has worked on the conservation effort for the last ten years. “Because of conservation and other measures that have been enacted, the bay looks great compared to what it was. But ecologically it is still very compromised. The GIS project is giving us the tools we need to address that.”

“The 1995 Century Plan really worked,” says Stan Hales, director of the Barnegat Bay National Estuary Program, part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to promote research and restoration in 28 nationally significant estuaries. “Many of the spaces identified in the plan were protected. We need to build on that effort, which is what TPL is doing now.

With GIS, the great joy is that you can bring a large amount of information to the table very efficiently. It really is powerful.”

A Long-Term Commitment To The Bay

A former biologist with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Paul McLain has witnessed many of the changes in the Barnegat Bay watershed. Even at age 82, McLain—known to all as “Pete”—can be difficult to reach. He spends most of his days on the bay with college students, studying the effects of pollution on aquatic wildlife and vegetation. Specifically, McLain studies eutrophication, an increase of nutrients, often nitrogen, that feed surface algae blooms and other plant growth. Algae blooms block sunlight needed by underwater plants and consume essential oxygen as the algae decay. Nutrients often come from development and agriculture: dirt, fertilizer from farm fields and lawns, and waste from faulty septic systems that flow into the bay.

Eutrophication is a problem in many estuaries— including Chesapeake Bay and Florida’s Tampa Bay. But Barnegat Bay is especially endangered, in several ways. It is shallow—ranging from only 3 to 20 feet in depth—so less water is available to dilute nutrients. And because the long, narrow bay offers only two relatively small openings at the seaward end, its water and accumulated nutrients flush very slowly into the ocean. In addition, many wetlands around the bay have been filled or developed and thus cannot absorb excess nutrients.

“Over 75 percent of the tidal marsh on the edges of Barnegat Bay has been lost,” says McLain. “Streets empty right into the bay, causing an astronomical increase in fertilizer, dirt, and nutrients. The algae blooms that have developed are like putting a rug on your lawn; they’re suffocating the natural ecosystem.”

Pollution of the bay isn’t the only potential effect of development on the area’s water. Groundwater, the source of municipal water supplies, can be polluted with pesticides used on lawns and oil that washes off streets, driveways, and parking lots. Historically, the region’s groundwater has also been polluted by industries. All this pollution can end up in the bay and in water from the tap.

There are many ways to control such pollution, including the use of stormwater retention basins, water treatment plants and other cleanup technology, and regulations to guide development. But conservation is an important approach to protecting water quality, especially when combined with other measures. Research has shown that it is often much cheaper to protect watersheds through conservation than to clean up polluted water. For several decades, TPL has been using conservation as a watershed protection tool nationwide. Beginning in the 1990s, TPL began to share information about conservation solutions for water protection by publishing several handbooks and reports, including Protecting the Source and The Source Protection Handbook.

The 1995 publication of TPL’s The Century Plan highlighted land conservation as a water-protection strategy for the Barnegat Bay watershed and paved the way, in 1997, for the passage of an Ocean County tax to establish and fund the county’s Natural Lands Trust Program, which acquires lands in the watershed. TPL, which already was conserving land in the watershed, began talking with the owners of some key properties. “That was really the birth of our Natural Lands program,” says David J. McKeon, director of the Ocean County planning department. “TPL had been working on a number of properties that needed some financial help, so we were able to jump in and acquire properties with their partnership.” Today the funding program raises an average of $10 million a year, with which the county has acquired about 7,000 acres.

“Preserving open space is of the utmost importance to Ocean County,” says Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr., who serves as liaison between the county’s board of chosen freeholders—its legislative governing body—and the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust, which administers the conservation funding program. “Conservation is further advanced when we work in partnership with such organizations as TPL.”

In all, more than one-third of the nearly 76,000 acres targeted for conservation in The Century Plan have been protected. In addition to conservation by Ocean County, land has been protected by local communities and water agencies. With federal money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, and other sources, some lands have been protected as part of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, which manages more than 43,000 acres in the sensitive watershed for migratory birds and other wildlife. Another key funding partner has been the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres Program, which has provided matching grants for local conservation by counties and communities and contributed funds to many protection projects throughout the watershed.

Mapping The Bay

“Watershed protection has been a part of TPL’s work for decades,” says Breece Robertson, director of TPL’s GIS program. “But the new GIS tools make it possible for us to translate the conservation desires of those who live and work in the watershed into dynamic maps. These are great tools not only for understanding the watershed but also for developing support for conservation, since they clearly identify what has already been lost due to development, as well as the top priorities for water and habitat protection, restoration, scenic areas, and recreation.”

In preparing the original Century Plan, TPL field biologist Peter Blanchard crisscrossed the watershed talking to residents about which lands merited protection. He studied the region’s biology, hydrology, development trends, and wildlife resources. The current process is similar, particularly the up-front gathering of information from residents about conservation needs and goals. But the computerized information now available about the watershed is magnitudes greater than in 1995. Modern GIS programs have made it easier to create “layers” of information about various elements of the landscape.

“TPL develops customized models that combine GIS data layers in a systematic way to tease out locations in critical need of conservation or restoration,” says Mitchel Hannon from TPL’s national GIS team. The models produce maps that display conservation opportunities to meet identified goals. TPL calls its award-winning GIS conservation system “greenprinting” and has used it to help dozens of communities nationwide fulfill conservation goals.

The first step in any greenprinting process is to understand local priorities, says Kelley Hart, a program manager in TPL’s Washington, D.C., office who has worked on the Barnegat Bay conservation effort. “In the Barnegat Bay watershed, there is a large and dedicated group of organizations and individuals working in areas such as water quality, park and recreation planning, land conservation, smart-growth planning, and forest conservation. Capturing and understanding what those groups and people care about was the first step in the new process.”

The Barnegat Bay 2020 Steering Committee— which guided the new effort—included more than 50 representatives from federal, state, and local governments, as well as academic and private organizations. Over the course of three meetings in the fall of 2007 and spring of 2008, the group developed key criteria by which to rate lands in the watershed, such as the likelihood of future development, adjacency to already protected areas, whether they were listed in The Century Plan, and whether they represent a priority for water conservation, habitat conservation, recreational access, or scenic quality. In all, the program has helped prioritize more than 25,000 acres of land, creating a greenprint for future conservation work in the region.

“This is more than a mapping process; it’s a community process,” says Brenda Faber, TPL’s primary GIS consultant on the project. “You seek buy-in up front, so that when the maps and the results come out, it’s information that everyone recognizes. The maps use the same language. It’s defensible, it’s scientifically concrete, and it holds a direct relationship to the people doing the work.”

New Hope For A Watershed

On a rainy morning that has turned Barnegat Bay from blue to gunmetal gray, Lynn O’Mealia is serving tea and coffee cake in her bright kitchen in Mantoloking, a picturesque town near the mouth of the Metedeconk River at the bay’s northern end. “Water quality resonates with residents along the bay, but there are only so many of them,” she says. “So we are trying to educate people that what happens around the headwaters of the watershed also has an important impact on the bay.”

O’Mealia and her husband, Harry, have strong ties to the landscape. Harry’s father sailed on the bay as a child, and the couple and their children have summered there for 25 years, commuting down from New York City. They purchased a permanent home in Mantoloking three years ago, a house once owned by Harry’s father’s family.

As members of TPL’s New Jersey Advisory Council, the O’Mealias have been tireless supporters of the organization’s work in the watershed and key leaders in an effort to raise a $1.5 million fund to support TPL’s local conservation efforts. On this particular morning, Lynn is deep into the planning of the 2008 Barnegat Bay Charities Catboat Ball, a highly anticipated annual event that this year would benefit TPL’s Barnegat Bay conservation program and witness the official unveiling of the Barnegat Bay 2020 report. (A catboat is a type of small sailboat that is common on the bay.)

O’Mealia understands that her home watershed is still deeply threatened but is convinced that the new greenprint can make a huge difference in its future. “TPL has accomplished so much,” she says, “and this Barnegat Bay 2020 publication is going to identify what land is left on a priority basis.”

On another day, deep in the pinelands, Kathy Haake drives past dozens of new homes on large lots and other lots sprouting for sale signs. She knows that more than 4,500 acres identified for conservation in The Century Plan report have already been developed. But, like Lynn O’Mealia and the countless other conservationists with whom she is working, Haake prefers to focus on the significant accomplishments and future promise of the conservation effort. With the publication of Barnegat Bay 2020, she knows she will have a powerful tool with which to reach out to residents and developers and craft future conservation successes.

“In a way, the release of the plan is the latest step in a successful conservation effort that has been going for more than a decade,” she says. “But it is also the first step in a GIS, science-based program that will be a valuable tool for protecting the bay and some of the finest landscapes in this watershed for future generations. We know based on nearly twenty-five years of experience that there is tremendous support for conservation here. People know what is at stake, and that if they help protect land, they will be able to come back to it in ten, twenty, or fifty years and say to their kids or grandkids, ‘We did that.’ They are part of something that is really going to last.”

Based in Arlington, Virginia, Kim A. O’Connell writes frequently about conservation and historic preservation. Her article on heritage tourism appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Land&People.