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TOMS RIVER, N.J. (AP) — Barnegat Bay is in trouble, and the economy of the region that depends on it could be badly hurt if things don't change, New Jersey's chief environmental official said Monday.
Environmental Commissioner Bob Martin noted Monday that the bay is a huge part of New Jersey's $35.5 billion tourism-based economy. He said pollution from lawns and storm sewers is killing the bay.
"The ecological health of Barnegat Bay is in decline, threatening the economic health of the region," he said at a public hearing. "The bay is a crucial part of our state identity. It's a big economic engine for fishing, boating, tourism, restaurants and shopping."
Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie signed bills aimed at improving water quality and limiting pollutants that make their way into the bay.
The bay is 75 square miles and is one of the state's main breeding grounds for fish, clams and crabs. It also provides habitat for many shorebirds. The bay's 660-square-mile watershed encompasses most of part of 33 municipalities in Ocean County, one of the fastest-growing regions on the East Coast.
The centerpiece of the deal was an agreement with the owners of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant to shut it down 10 years earlier than planned, in 2019. The plant releases superheated water back into the bay, and its cooling system kills billions of tiny marine organisms and fish each year.
The plan also calls for upgrading stormwater and sewer systems that currently overflow and dump pollutants directly into the bay.
New Jersey recently adopted the nation's toughest fertilizer restrictions, limiting the amount of nitrogen that can be applied to lawns and agricultural areas. As of January 2013, all fertilizer products sold in the state must contain at least 20 percent slow-release nitrogen and no phosphorous at all. These substances degrade water quality and are believed to contribute to a rapid rise in the amount of stinging jellyfish in the bay and its tributaries that has taken place in recent years.
The plan also requires developers to restore soil to its original condition once building is finished, provides $2.2 million to acquire land in sensitive parts of the Barnegat Bay watershed so that they can't be built on, adopts stricter water quality standards and calls for more research on conditions in the bay. Martin said studies that will be done include a survey of fish and crab populations, and a study on algae blooms that frequently plague the bay.
The state is making $44 million in grants and low-interest loans available for more than 90 projects to improve the health of the bay.
Environmentalists generally support the efforts to improve the bay, although some feel it does not go far enough. One measure in particular was not included in the package signed into law by Christie.
It would establish a "total maximum daily load," or a daily amount of pollution that can be allowed to enter the bay.
"This plan can't get the job done because it won't address the nitrogen load in the bay," said Doug O'Malley of Environment New Jersey. "You can't say the bay is ailing and then allow Ocean County to continue to get developed."
Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, said a total maximum standard for pollution in the bay is needed. But she said the steps taken so far are a good start toward reversing decades of damage and neglect to the bay.
"It's very encouraging," she said. "Over the years, there's been a lot of plans and studies and very little action. It's clear the administration is taking this seriously and moving forward with things."