Fred Akers, 63, of Buena Vista Township, is an environmental advocate and watchdog through his administrative role at the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, a nonprofit that receives federal funding. For more than a decade, he’s been involved in issues related to development, infrastructure and natural resource management in South Jersey. Akers, who was paid $48,000 in 2011 (last tax record available), has also served on various state environmental committees and focus groups and is a current member of both the Atlantic County Utilities Authority and the Buena Vista Township Planning Board.
Question: How did the real estate boom in the ’90s and early 2000s affect the watershed?
Answer: The Great Egg Harbor watershed is unique in ... that our water quality standard is really high. We have, for the most part, (Environmental Protection Agency-designated) “outstanding national resource waters,” which is the highest standard. There are standards that most of the state has, and then, in the Pinelands, the standard is really high. We’re fortunate the water quality is really good, but we break down the watershed — which goes from Berlin, Camden County, where the watershed starts behind the Home Depot, all the way down to Atlantic City, where it enters the ocean — into smaller watersheds. It’s similar to the nesting dolls at Christmastime; one fits into the next.
Some watersheds are less developed than others, so we look at water quality in both. The issues we see in sub-watersheds with higher development tend to be higher pH, sediment runoff, higher nutrient levels (and) flash flooding that causes physical erosion and those kinds of things. That’s a function of how our stormwater is managed. We have some that are pristine and some that have issues.
Q: And how did development strain infrastructure?
A: From the river perspective, the main infrastructure are the dams on the river. It’s kind of a sad story, in that a lot of the ... dams were created for purposes in the past that are no longer at play. Some of the dams were built to farm cranberries, for example. It creates a problem for people who own them because, as development has occurred and ... the management (of stormwater) has not met design expectations, it has caused a higher amount of water behind these dams that weren’t built to handle it.
The dam at Lake Lenape is a high-value dam because of the recreational activities. It’s jointly owned and operated by Hamilton Township and the county. They’ve been working to keep it up, keep it maintained. They were upgrading the ability to adjust the flows so they could coordinate lowering the level of the lake for impending flows from weather events.
Q: During Tropical Storm Irene, you saw a number of dams fail because of the water loads. Is that a consequence of more demands being pushed beyond their capacity, and with less maintenance?
A: It’s a cumulative impact situation. You have these structures, a lot of them made out of wood and some of them concrete, and they depreciate. They need to be maintained to meet their original expectations. You have that burden of maintenance, and then you have additional load that gets put on them. In fairness to design standards, we can’t afford to design everything for the worst-case scenario. The standards are a compromise based on average conditions and, when you get extremes, it puts it in a new ball game.
Q: Describe the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association. What is it, how was it formed and what’s your role?
A: The Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association was created in 1990. It came into being out of the study of the Great Egg Harbor River to be included into the (federal) Wild and Scenic Water System. The river was designated — 129 miles and 17 tributaries — in 1992, and there was a management plan created. The Watershed Association was the local organization. There needed to be local buy-in to have this wild and scenic designation, so ... 12 municipalities did formal resolutions to support the plan.
Around about 2000 ... the plan was published and the River Council was created. The 12 towns each have a seat on the council, and the Watershed Association has a seat. There was a requirement, at that point, for an administrator to run the council. We couldn’t find anyone who knew the river or really cared about it to apply for the job, so I applied for it and here I am 12 years later.
Q: “Watershed administrator” sounds like an odd job title, like you’re the Indiana Jones of the river.
A: It is an odd job title, and I do an unbelievable amount of different things. I can be in the field doing ... river assessments. I have a sub-banding permit to look after 30 osprey platforms out in the estuary. We have a very robust education and outreach program. Part of the management plan determined that if people didn’t appreciate the value of the river, then they wouldn’t be that interested in protecting it, so we do a lot of in-school programs and field trips. And we do a lot of public events ... like we were at the ACUA on Earth Day, teaching people where their drinking water comes from.
One of my main focuses is how we use the land, how much pollution runs off and (how that) impacts the river. I also have the watchdog role. (The) Pinelands Commission is the regional planning entity that really controls land use in the big picture. I attend almost all the (commission) meetings.
Q: How is the organization funded?
A: It’s a tremendous value for the tax dollars because we’re cheap and on the ground locally. We’re at $100,000 (annually from Congress), give or take. With that, we have two staff people and support all the educational programs.
Q: How did you become interested in nature and conservation?
A: I grew up in Brigantine, as I jokingly say, B.C. — before casinos. I lived two blocks from the ocean and a block from the bay. It was the ’60s when I grew up, and back in those days your parents would let you ride your bike wherever you wanted. You could go out for hours and hours.
Plus, my father, Jim Akers, was a very avid ornithologist. He was an outdoorsman and one of the founders of Atlantic Audubon (Society) and ran a Boy Scout troop for years and years. My parents would take us camping all the time. They’d take us to state parks up and down the coast in a station wagon with tents (tied down) on top. My upbringing really connected me to the environment.
Q: The big question a lot of municipalities have is how to balance their need for growth with conservation and maintaining open space.
A: Money is the focus. We can put a value on jobs and income and, perhaps, development, but we need to balance that by putting a value on undeveloped land and ecosystem services.
We have a growth addiction where we think we need to have growth, that somehow growth equals prosperity. Based on my perception of reality, that’s a myth.
When we have bricks-and-mortar development, buildings and roads, the value for those activities is at the highest when we build them. The people who build them are making the profits for their bottom line. They go away, and those developments begin to depreciate in value. If we don’t keep investing in them to maintain them, they depreciate. On the other side, if we invest our money in open space ... the value doesn’t depreciate.
Q: How do you put a value on open space? What is the value, for instance, of a wetland’s impact on water filtration or flood mitigation?
A: The annual value of ecosystem services provided by New Jersey’s natural capital is estimated at between $8.6 billion and $19.8 billion a year. I didn’t come up with these numbers; they were developed by people at (the state Department of Environmental Protection) who are paid to do this.
There are also nonmonetary values, like what does a good-looking river mean to the people that live nearby? Farmland preservation is another value people cherish, to be able to have a country setting where they live and where they travel.
New York City has a high demand for drinking water. There was a point where they were having problems meeting that demand, and the EPA got involved and told them they had to do something. They looked at building a water treatment plant ... (and) the second alternative was to buy land in the Catskill Mountains and create a reservoir system where the water would run off undisturbed lands into the reservoirs and that high-quality (water) would be piped into New York City. It was cheaper to buy the land and run the water in giant tunnels to New York. That’s a classic example.
Q: Has New Jersey’s Green Acres program, which provides funding for open space preservation, been successful?
A: I think that’s been very successful, and a big part of it is that the public’s bought into it. It’s a very fair way to preserve land and provide recreational and environmental value to people. What we’re doing as a society is saying we’ll pay fair market value for the land from whoever owns it ... to protect those properties, fair and square. It’s not trying to protect environmental values by regulation.
Atlantic County is a great example (of) having a good balance between development and open space preservation. As of 2009, about 110,000 acres (are set aside as) open space.
Q: What are the benefits of having so much of your land mass designated for open space?
A: Some of those lands are natural lands that are controlling floods, removing pollutants from water (and) cleaning the air through the functions of trees. A new value that is becoming more and more important in public perception is the carbon sequestration provided by living, healthy forests keeping the carbon tied up. On the recreation end, it’s huge, so people can get out and play ball, they can hike, they can canoe, go fishing.
Q: Another form of state intervention is the Pinelands Commission, which governs a lot of development in South Jersey. What has been its impact?
A: The Pinelands Protection Act was the first of its kind ... in the late ’70s. It’s a serious mixed bag because, of over 1 million acres, part of it is the protection area and part of it is the high-value area. It was recognized ... that there needed to be what I call “sacrifice areas” to protect the core of the Pinelands. Not all of it is to be protected to the extent that some of it is.
Q: What you’re referring to are the regional growth areas — places like Egg Harbor Township — that were chosen for the highest concentration of commercial and residential construction in the Pinelands.
A: At the time, quite a few towns didn’t want to have their development restricted. Those towns that really wanted it became the regional growth areas. That was the more appropriate place — the infrastructure was there, sewer was coming in. Those towns got what they wanted in terms of development, but as time passed and the development occurred, now they seem to be having a different opinion.
Now, they have all this development and it’s problematic: pressure for schools, pressure for taxes. If growth and development equaled prosperity, then towns like Egg Harbor Township should be wealthy. They should have plenty of money for the ... social needs you have when you have major development.
Overall, I think that it’s successful, but that’s the plan and a lot of people don’t realize all of the Pinelands is not going to be protected to the same extent.
In theory, if the rules of the plan were implemented 100 percent, it’s not bad. The big area I’m involved with where there are problems is stormwater management. It’s one that’s evolved quite a bit, and right now we have a lot of stormwater basins that don’t work correctly. If they performed flawlessly, water quality in general would be a lot better and, most importantly, we’d be getting more water into the ground where we can use it, rather than running off into the ocean.
Q: You hear a lot of complaints about how stringent state environmental regulations are, so how were stormwater basins being built incorrectly?
A: In the early days, we just didn’t have the understanding of how the soil works. If rain falls in a forest, where the soil is soft and fluffy and undisturbed, it almost all soaks in. It very rarely runs off. If you compact the soil, it can have the density of concrete. If we’re going to build structures to replace the forest’s functions for water infiltration, we have to make the soil be like it is in the forest. That’s a hard thing to do, and people still don’t understand that. You can have a plan where you’re going to build a stormwater basin to provide the same stormwater infiltration (as pre-developed conditions), but to actually get that to perform as planned has its technical issues.
If it’s not done right, then what do you do? The Pinelands Commission basically has no enforcement power. They have the rules and regulations that, if they were flawlessly implemented, would provide state-of-the-art protections, but the plan isn’t flawlessly implemented. That makes it difficult to deal with. I struggle with that quite a bit. The culture is changing, and there are success stories. There are basins that work really good, and there are basins that don’t.
Q: And which is in the majority?
A: Right now, the majority of basins that were built before, say, 2004, when the new stormwater rules were adopted by New Jersey — most of those basins are not working too well. The newer basins, the new rules, have made a big improvement. We’re working on getting them to work right.
We’re fortunate in our watershed that we have a large inventory of open space and fully functioning wetlands. Where the problem is most acute and getting a lot of publicity is Barnegat Bay. They have their hands full with failing stormwater basins up there. We’re working in our watershed to make sure we don’t get to that point.
Q: You’re also on the board of the ACUA. What do you see as the challenges in terms of waste management, water resources and renewable energy?
A: The ACUA is a leader in alternative energy technology, and that’s another great aspect of Atlantic County. The landfill is being managed really well, but the effort to recycle has a direct connection to the life of the landfill. There’s issues with people not recycling enough, and the ACUA and others are constantly trying to promote that. On the wastewater end, the regional sewage treatment plants on the coast were born out of the Clean Water Act to correct all the small water treatment plants that weren’t properly run. That infrastructure is working really well, but we found out that because it’s on the coast and discharging water out into the ocean, there are some broad issues, (including) how vulnerable those facilities are to sea level rise. And all the water we use and take out of the acquifer is used once and discharged into the ocean. How well we conserve water and treat it as a precious resource is important (to communicate to residents). Meanwhile, the ACUA is on the forefront of (clean air measures), by first getting their vehicles changed over to natural gas.
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