The unusual amount of snow New Jersey has seen this winter - the average snowfall statewide in January was 10 inches above normal - has brought obvious traffic and power challenges. But when that snow melts, it contributes to a not-so-obvious and extremely intractable problem - stormwater runoff.
Runoff is the largest source of water pollution in the state. Rainwater (and melting snow) carries pollutants from yards, streets and construction sites into waterways. This pollution - road salt, oil, trash, fertilizers and animal waste - is primarily responsible for the fact that 95 percent of our lakes and ponds and 90 percent of rivers and streams are considered impaired by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The state has responded with a host of regulations to control stormwater runoff, including a tough new law designed to limit fertilizer runoff. But the only way to really limit runoff pollution is to curtail development - something few public officials have any stomach for.
Now nine environmental organizations have filed a petition with the state Department of Environmental Protection, asking it to take stronger measures to curtail stormwater runoff. The petition comes as the state must prepare to update stormwater permits under the federal Clean Water Act, which requires that permits be renewed every five years to reflect new technology and improved practices.
The groups want the DEP to require the use of "green infrastructure" - roadside plantings, rain gardens, roof gardens, porous pavement and cisterns - that trap runoff before it reaches storm sewers. The groups say other states are ahead of New Jersey in using these technologies.
The problem hits home in South Jersey, where the tourist economy depends on the health of our bays and rivers. The most glaring example of the damage runoff can do is in Barnegat Bay. Pollution, primarily from lawn fertilizers, has crippled one of our recreational jewels. The runoff fuels algae blooms that steal the oxygen from the bay's water. Native plants and fish die and are replaced by invasive species, such as stinging sea nettles that have made it impossible to swim in parts of the bay.
New rules that limit the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in fertilizers went into effect last year, a step in the the right direction. Heeding the advice of environmental groups and working to further limit runoff is the next step toward restoring the bay and New Jersey's other waterways.