Stronger Runoff Permits Needed for NJ's Polluted Waterways

Almost every waterway in New Jersey is too polluted to meet clean water standards, and the state’s new proposed permits for municipal stormwater discharges wouldn’t do anything to change that.

Across New Jersey, polluted runoff from the built environment is burdening local communities with public health threats, lost economic and recreational opportunities, unhealthy ecosystems, and costly flooding. Every time it rains, water washes off of hard surfaces like roads, parking lots, and rooftops instead of soaking into the ground like it would in a natural environment. This runoff flows directly into local water bodies without any treatment. Along the way, it picks up substances like animal waste, fertilizer, trash, pesticides, and dirt, all of which cause downstream rivers and bays to become contaminated.

Image: EPA

In New Jersey, polluted runoff is the reason for about one-third to one-half of the state’s water quality problems. That makes it the #1 contributor to water pollution in the state. In total, about 13,000 miles of rivers, 27,000 acres of lakes and ponds, 200 square miles of bays and estuaries, and 370 square miles of ocean and coastal waters in New Jersey are unsafe for fishing, swimming, boating, or drinking because of polluted runoff.

Storm runoff floods small streams and backyards with polluted water across New Jersey. Image: Flickr/Hopeful_in_NJ

New Jersey state agencies are supposed to curb this harmful pollution source, but they’ve fallen down on the job. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) requires municipalities to take steps to reduce runoff through permits. But those permits haven’t been updated in almost a decade, and their requirements are so weak that they’ve been entirely ineffective at protecting water quality – which continues to grow worse across the state.

DEP is renewing the permits now, but it’s proposing to keep the same weak requirements in place with almost no meaningful changes. That’s not the way to turn things around in New Jersey’s rivers, streams, and bays.

Thanks to weak permits, stormwater runoff sometimes makes it unsafe for families to swim at New Jersey’s ocean beaches. Image: Flickr/Pennuja

One big problem is that the permits don’t require the use of modern technologies that have proven effective at reducing runoff pollution. “Green infrastructure” practices—like rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavement, and cisterns—let rainwater soak into the ground or get taken up by plants. That means the water doesn’t dump contaminants into nearby waterways.

Green infrastructure also provides wide-ranging benefits like cleaner air, more beautiful neighborhoods, fewer asthma and heat-related illnesses, lower energy demand for heating and cooling, and increased property values. That’s why many places around the U.S.—including New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—are making major investments in green infrastructure as a cost-effective solution to runoff pollution problems.

But New Jersey’s permits and regulations don’t require the use of these technologies. They don’t even require other types of pollution controls to be adequately maintained. That’s a shame, because stronger safeguards are needed in New Jersey more than anywhere else: it’s the most densely populated and urbanized state in the nation.

Green infrastructure captures runoff. Image: EPA

Nor do the state’s stormwater permits require municipalities to develop comprehensive strategies to meet clean water standards. Instead, they would make it optional for cities and townships to reduce pollution enough to achieve safe, healthy waterways.

The proposed permits would guarantee another five years of the status quo. But that’s not good enough for New Jersey families. Instead of issuing permits with the same ineffective requirements, DEP should take this opportunity to modernize stormwater control standards and require clean-up plans for local water bodies. If you agree, you can send DEP comments on the proposed permits, until Monday, April 3, according to the instructions on the agency’s website.

About the Authors

Becky Hammer

Deputy Director, Federal Water Policy; Senior Attorney, Nature Program

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