State environmental officials are in a race to clear the region’s lagoons of debris left in the waterways following Hurricane Sandy.

The cleanup needs to begin soon if it is to be completed before the start of the summer boating season, but problems could arise as early as March, when fishermen flock to the waterways in search of stripers.

And as officials point out, there’s more than just a safe boating season at stake. There’s millions in tourism dollars.

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The state Department of Environmental Protection has divided the waterways into 11 zones and is in the final stages of naming contractors to work to remove debris in these zones, DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said.

Several zones along the coast could be handled by one contractor and the state will likely hire three contractors to complete the entire cleanup, Hajna said. The large majority of the cleanup is in the northern coastal region of Ocean County and into Monmouth County moving north, he said.

There is no price tag yet for the waterway cleanup, Hajna said.

“Ultimately FEMA will cover these costs. Our goal is to begin work as soon as contracts are awarded and get most if not all debris out of by the start of the tourist season,” Hajna said.

The Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor Township was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy and is made up of small waterfront homes connected by a maze of lagoons.

Township officials there have met with representatives from DEP’s Marine Debris Task Force, which will ultimately be funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, regarding debris in the area’s waterways and lagoons.

Township Assistant Administrator Michael Fromosky said DEP representatives who conducted a flyover of the waterways told him the lagoons are filled with garbage and debris.

Cleanup needs to begin before the summer boating season or conditions are going to become very dangerous, Fromosky said.

“You ride around and you can see docks hanging half on land and half in the water and wood debris. I can’t tell you how many boats were left unattended and have sunk and now there are environmental issues,” he said. “As Gov. Christie said all the money that the water generates in this state no one is going to come down if they can’t use the water and go boating and swimming,” he said.

Next door in the smaller waterfront municipality of Tuckerton, the lagoons in the Tuckerton Beach section are believed to be the final resting place for seven homes that disappeared off Parker Road during the storm.

Borough Administrator Jenny Gleghorn said the exact location of the homes is still not known.

One home that washed into a lagoon in Tuckerton Beach has been removed, Tuckerton Emergency Management Coordinator Harold Spedding said, but the debris from others remains.

Two months ago the borough requested that the state come to the area and perform sonar scanning to determine what is in the lagoons, but that has not yet happened.

“As far as we know the concentration of debris is in the lagoons between Parker Road and Carroll Avenue, the lagoon between Little Egg Harbor Road and Curlew Road; and Flamingo Road and Heron Road,” Spedding said.

The lagoons located further inland in the borough did not see as much debris after the storm, he said.

“Clearing the waterways of debris might not be at the top of the list. (But) at this minute in the winter we have a lot of people who are concerned we still have people out there fishing. We have a lot of people who have said their boats have struck debris underwater and bent propellers,” he said.

There are also the major concerns the borough is facing with sitting debris in Tuckerton Creek that feeds all the lagoons on the eastern side of the roadway, including several marinas and the Tuckerton Seaport, he said.

“Then there is Thomspon’s Creek that feeds the three lagoons in the Paradise Cove section, and we don’t know what’s in there because it’s all underwater,” he said.

Hajna said DEP is starting cleanup work soon, but did not have an exact date.

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