The efforts of municipalities in the region, led by Stafford Township, to limit fertilizer runoff pollution is good news for the environment.

Better still is that more robust reductions of such pollution of waterways are in the works at the state and federal levels. Even genetic engineering looks like it will make a significant contribution.

Our understanding of runoff pollution and determination to do something about it seem to have reached a tipping point.

Numerous shore towns look likely to follow Stafford's lead in restricting fertilizer ingredients and applications. Statewide fertilizer regulations are being developed in the Legislature, with passage by midyear the goal.

More important, the Environmental Protection Agency has decided to get serious about reducing all runoff.

The agency was chastised by a 2008 National Research Council report that found ineffective its requirement that builders limit stormwater runoff to the "maximum extent practicable." The council urged guidelines for runoff flows and contaminants instead, and this month the agency announced it will write new runoff regulations by 2012.

These could require numerous strategies to keep water from running off building sites, such as rain gardens, porous pavements, rain barrels and such - whatever it takes to get water to filter into the ground instead of flowing away.

These initiatives come as our understanding of the runoff problem grows.

Already, 13 percent of rivers, 18 percent of lakes and 32 percent of estuaries are classified by EPA as unsafe for swimming or fishing.

The Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone the size of New Jersey in which Mississippi River runoff pollution has killed nearly all marine life.

A study presented at last year's American Chemical Society meeting found that by considering only stormwater runoff and not also the use of sprinklers and irrigation systems, existing studies may have underestimated the amount of runoff from homes by as much as 50 percent.

The state chapter of the Sierra Club points to nitrogen as a primary culprit in fertilizer, since it feeds algae that choke the life out of water habitats.

Recent research by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory found the nitrogen problem is accelerating because pollution is reducing by about half the ability of natural bacteria to convert nitrates into the gas nitrogen.

The EPA says most runoff pollution still comes from agriculture. Farming use of nitrogen has increased from 2,738 tons in 1960 to 13,194 tons in 2007.

That increase, of course, has done much to help feed the growing global population - but science may make cutting back on nitrogen fertilizers possible without crop reductions.

California-based Arcadia Biosciences has found that inserting genes from nitrogen-efficient plants such as barley into other crops reduces the amount of fertilizer they need. Modified canola plants, for example, have produced the same yields with two-thirds less nitrogen fertilizer.

All of these efforts - and more - will be needed to fix one of the environment's most intractable problems.

This will take time, but we should feel good about working toward healthier waterways, bays and oceans, especially living in a coastal area.

Contact Kevin Post:

609-272-7250