When Robert Hirth moved to Little Egg Harbor Township 26 years ago, he had an unobstructed view of Barnegat Bay, and the lagoon off his backyard was regularly filled with swimmers.
But these days, the view from Hirth’s South Captain Road property is dominated by rows of houses. Boats outnumber swimmers in the lagoon.
“The water is just too dirty for that any more. Some people still swim when the water looks clear, but that doesn’t happen too often. And there’s no telling if the water is even clean then,” said Hirth, 62, who stopped swimming in the lagoon about three years ago.
These problems extend beyond one lagoon in a section of one southern Ocean County township. They extend even beyond the water — to the streets and buildings that frame the lagoons.
Many of the aging lagoon communities that have helped define southern Ocean County’s character for the past half-century are decaying. They were poorly planned from the beginning, and they were never meant to support the huge growth in population and year-round use that have occurred over the last few decades.
The result is dirty water and crumbling infrastructure.
Hirth blames a bulk of the water quality problems on the storm drains that have emptied directly into the lagoon for decades and the influx of year-round residents into the area.
“More people and more boats created more pollution,” he said. “And over the years, all that stuff has built up.”
“There has been development on the lagoon waterfront for the past 70 years. And these communities are not too dissimilar to communities built anywhere else, in that most were built within a window of 5 to 10 years,” said James Oris, who has served at municipal engineer for several towns with lagoon communities.
He said these communities were not meant to support so much growth are starting to wear out.
The tangled web of lagoons adjacent to Route 72 in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township has been a popular vacation getaway since the first homes were built there in the 1960s.
But as more and more people opted to make Beach Haven West their year-round residence, the demand on the infrastructure and the lagoons in the community also escalated.
“It’s definitely an ongoing battle for us,” said Township Administrator Jim Moran, adding the major problem the township currently faces is the deterioration and replacement of storm drains. “Beach Haven West was essentially built on marshlands, which means that when you dig down far enough, you hit water.
“So when they put in the water and sewer pipes, many weren’t put in as deep as they should have been. This can create flow issues and other problems.”
Little Egg Harbor Township Mayor Ray Gormley said another problem these communities face lies in the very ground they’re built upon.
“Basically the Mystic Island section of Little Egg was built in the 1960s using a technique called scallop-shelling to dig the lagoons. They didn’t dredge like they do today. They put the mud where the homes are built. That’s why most of your homes in the older section are built on slabs,” Gormley said.
“Now a lot of folks are having trouble with the settlement where the slabs have tilted, cracked, or whatever. But that’s just because the homes were built on the spoils and, over the years, it has settled.”
Moran said this severe settling has caused problems in many lagoon communities that are not as common for inland neighborhoods built on a more solid foundation.
“It causes the water and sewer pipes to shift much more than they would elsewhere, and the roadways to shift much more than they normally would,” he said.
But the deterioration of these communities can also be attributed to the numbers of people occupying them.
“When a lot of these homes were built, many of them were vacation homes that were only occupied about 70 days a year. Somewhere along the line that changed and people started renovating their lagoon-front homes so they could live in them year round,” Tuckerton construction official Phil Reed said.
“This means the size of the homes increased to accommodate families, and the infrastructure that was only being used for 70 days was now being called on 365 days … even trips down the road to Acme take their toll.”
Water quality worsens
As the communities themselves get older, the lagoons deteriorate, too.
“There’s a unique situation with these developments that were cut out,” said Michael Kennish, research coordinator for the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve in Little Egg Harbor Township.
“These lagoons are not natural. They’re man-made. And some of them extend way off tidal creeks, such as Tuckerton Creek, that have their own hydrology issues. There is very, very, very poor flushing of these lagoons, which makes them ripe for really significant water quality problems.”
Kennish said one of the reasons that people such as Hirth have noticed a decline in water quality is due to fertilizers, pesticides, leaves and other substances getting flushed into the lagoons. Since the lagoons have such low turnover, those materials are not flushed out into the Barnegat Bay. This leads to the growth of destructive algae.
“What most people are seeing when they’re complaining about grimy water are algal blooms,” he said, adding that when the blooms inevitably die, the dead matter cuts off oxygen to the marine life on the lagoon floor. “But if they think the water quality is bad on the surface, it’s even worse the lower you get. It is very difficult for anything to live down there.”
Essentially, the popularity of these communities could be killing the lagoons.
“In 1975, the population of Ocean County was less than 300,000,” Kennish said. “Now it’s 573,000 and rapidly approaching 600,000. In about 30 years, the human impact on these waterways has nearly doubled.”
Jennifer O’Reilly, director of Save Barnegat Bay, said every one of those additional people has had an impact on the Barnegat Bay watershed.
“When people move down to these communities to live year-round, the first thing they often do is tear down the little bungalow and replace it with a larger home, with more bathrooms and a nicely manicured lawn,” O’Reilly said. “And the Barnegat Bay, as it is, is a low flushing bay. ... So what is happening in those lagoons absolutely has an impact on the water quality of the entire bay.”
Sharing the cost
Lagoon-front communities provide much of the character to southern Ocean County. But if proposed today, most would never be built at all.
“There’s no way,” Gormley said. “With all the state and federal regulations that came out after they were built … they wouldn’t stand a chance.”
But the municipalities in which they are located are still on the hook for funding to maintain them. And in the current tough economic times, these towns have to get creative to do so.
Reed said Tuckerton recently began regulating the size of new homes and requiring all property resales to either put in new bulkheads or repair existing ones to current standards.
“Bulkheads are the homeowner’s responsibility. But what’s the point of dredging and building a nice new house if the bulkhead there doesn’t keep any of the silt out of the water?” asked Reed, who said nearly half of Tuckerton Beach’s 600 bulkheads have been replaced since the initiative began. “Hopefully by addressing the problems before they happen, it will save us from a lot of headaches down the road.”
Stafford Township has started doing all of its own storm-drain work, Moran said, which has saved that municipality thousands of dollars per drain.
“There’s not a lot of grant money available these days,” Moran said. “So we want to get these things fixed, a lot of times we’re going to have to do it in-house.”
Moran said it costs an average of $22,000 to $25,000 to hire someone to fix a storm drain in these communities, but that Stafford Township only spends about $3,200 to $4,000 by doing the work in-house.
But even when one road, drain, pipes or bulkhead is fixed, there are dozens more in these aging communities.
“We try to space it out so that we’ll do a few projects along the water and then a few projects inland,” Gormley said. “But the neighborhoods on the lagoons are definitely getting older and are starting to need a lot more attention.”
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