OCEAN TOWNSHIP — With Barnegat Bay serving as a backdrop, Gov. Chris Christie signed a trio of bills into law Wednesday that are meant to protect the health of the bay and its inhabitants.

The bills establish regulations for fertilizer usage, standards for restoring damaged soil and requirements for the state Department of Transportation regarding the maintenance and upkeep of stormwater drains and basins.

“These are the first concrete steps taken, combined with the closing of Oyster Creek (Generating Station), to protect Barnegat Bay,” said Christie, who signed the bills in front of a standing-room only crowd at Skippers’ Cove Beach Club. “We will not lose our focus on this issue. We know there is more to do, and we will continue to do it.”

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The Barnegat Bay watershed, which encompasses 660 square miles in Ocean and Monmouth counties, was designated as an estuary of national significance in 1995. Its system consists of aquatic vegetation, shellfish beds, finfish habitats, waterfowl nesting grounds, and a human population of about 550,000 that more than doubles during the summer season, according to the Governor’s Office.

The first of the bills Christie signed Wednesday established the strictest fertilizer usage regulations in the nation to control the amount and content of the fertilizer applied to lawns. It bans the use of phosphorus in fertilizers and will require that at least 20 percent of all lawn fertilizers be in slow-release form, meaning they gradually release nutrients instead of all at once. The bill also established a buffer from the bay’s water bodies where fertilizer can be applied and prohibits the use of fertilizer during heavy rainfall.

The second bill updated the statewide soil erosion and sediment control standards to give soils an opportunity to properly absorb and filter stormwater runoff. This is particularly important for Ocean County, the fastest growing county in the state, because these problems are associated with many construction areas where the soil gets compacted to the point it can not properly absorb stormwater.

The bill requires the state Soil Conservation Committee to adopt standards for the restoration of optimal soil conditions, to the most practicable extent, after the completion of a construction project. It also authorizes a procedure for inspections on compliance with these standards and requires a soil restoration plan be submitted to the committee for any future development project subject to the “Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Act.”

The final bill established requirements for the state Department of Transportation to inventory and assess state-owned stormwater drains and basins in the Barnegat Bay watershed, and to make any needed repairs or replacements.

Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, said the implementation of such legislation was long overdue.

“It took honest recognition that the bay needs help. (Previous administrations) studied the issue to death. There was a lot of talk, but a failure to act,” said Rumpf, a cosponsor on the fertilizer and compaction bills. “Finally, with these three common sense measures, concrete actions are being taken to correct the problems that the bay is facing. ... This is a real watershed moment for the bay, no pun attended.”

Little Egg Harbor Township Mayor Ray Gormley, who has spent his life living and working along the Barnegat Bay, echoed Rumpf’s sentiments.

“All of the millions of gallons of nutrients that have flowed into the bay each year have ultimately made it difficult for things, like the clams and oysters that people enjoy eating, to grow,” said Gormley, who owns and operates a seafood and produce store in Little Egg Harbor Township. “The regrettable thing is it took a governor like this to make the common sense decisions to address the problem that, over the course of time, has become more and more obvious.”

Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, said these signs of the bay’s degradation have been obvious to those who frequent it.

“The bay is a part of everyday life here. So, you can see the increase in algal blooms and sea nettles. And you can also tell that the water doesn’t feel or look as fresh as it once did and that the fish population is dropping,” said Gove, also a co-sponsor on the fertilizer and compaction bills. “(Getting the bills passed) was a bi-partisan effort that I think is a wonderful step forward for the Bay and, like the governor said, it was hopefully only the beginning.”

In fact, New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel credited the sea nettles that invaded the bay last summer for the bills getting passed.

“When people realized they could not swim in the bay during the hottest summer on record they understood that the bay was in serious trouble. That pollution was causing the increase in sea nettles and the impact they were having on the bay, their lives, and property values,” Tittel said in a release. “Today is a victory for the environment. ... Without these bills, especially the fertilizer bill, the Bay will die. ... (But) we still have a long way to go to protect Barnegat Bay. .. These three bills are three of the most important first steps, but we still have more than 20 steps to go.”

Ocean Township Mayor Joseph Lachawiec said he was honored Christie chose his township as the location to sign the bill.

“We are very much a fishing, boating, swimming community, so we count a lot on the health of the bay,” Lachawiec said. “And when the Governor’s Office called out of the blue on Monday asking us if Waretown was available, I said ‘absolutely.’ This is an important moment. And we’d do anything to support the governor. He’s loquacious, but we love him.”

But Christie said the measures were an important step in preserving the way of life in southern Ocean County.

“For the people who live here, the Barnegat Bay is part of who they were growing up. It is part of who they are as adults. And it’s part of how they identify themselves as New Jerseyans,” Christie said. “We can not allow the degradation of this resource.”

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