Our Bay, Our Community: State of the Barnegat Bay Report 2016 released
Do our daily activities affect the Barnegat Bay, and how so? There are a number of issues hovering day to day activity in the bay and just about all of them are covered in the Barnegat Bay Partnership State of the Bay Report. Everything from how weather affects the bay, how animals and plants survive on nutrients, and how human behavior affects the bay are all things to be made aware of.
We are nearing the four year anniversary of Super-storm Sandy and with another heavy hurricane season predicted for the Atlantic clashing with a forecast for a hot and dry summer, will anything severe occur within the bay?
“You need to be prepared for the next storm,” said Dr. Stan Hales, Director of the Barnegat Bay Partnership. “Being prepared means we have to set a lot of things into motion. Put some things into place that will start to change us in the right direction.”
Hales adds it’s not necessarily about spending money to assess change, despite a potential financial burden.
There is slight concern however lingering into summer with question marks on the survival of bay wildlife.
With the number of storms predicted officials have also looked back on the toll Sandy had on marine life.
“Sandy was a storm of immense magnitude,” said Dr. Jim Vasslides, Program Scientist with the Barnegat Bay Partnership. “From what we can tell right now, Sandy didn’t have that much of an effect on those things just because of the timing. “
Vasslides adds that because Sandy hit in the fall, many small fish who typically come into the system to live are usually gone by that point.
However there are ways in which storms affect our livelihood.
"It might not be these large, disruptive storms but it’s going to be the nuisance kind of flooding that’s going to really impact people," adds Vasslides.
While the efforts in protecting the land exceed a good model, he says pressure is put in place on developing areas of the bay area.
Have you ever seen those funny or sickly looking things floating in the bay? There called algal blooms and turn up in a brownish-yellow color coming to life from an abundant chemical level of phytoplankton.
“In very dry years, for a lot of reasons that aren’t really clear to us,” said Hales. “We get the so called ‘algal bad actors’, harmful algal blooms which could have devastating impacts to the other components of the floor.”
Does the counterbalance of weather conditions put environmental beings into shock for the summer ahead?
“There’s going to be more variable weather so it could also be warm, and hot, and dry," said Hales who says concern over a possible fire exists due to the heat.
With the forecast for a hot and dry summer within the realm of possibility the risk for forest fires may increase, especially on windy days.
One such place that may be at risk not only inland but possibly the bay, are the pine barrens.
“I would be concerned about something like that for a couple different reasons,” explains Hales. “The forest areas that have healthy land cover and a good canopy…there’s almost no runoff from those areas. Forest soils are among the world’s best in infiltrating water.”
The groundwater quality in the Pine Barrens forest areas is very high.
Nearly 600 million gallons of fresh water enter the Barnegat Bay everyday in over 15 streams, rivers, and creeks splitting into either base flow which comes mostly from groundwater and stream-flow, which is the result of snow melting in your yard and flowing into a stream.
Among the water flowing in from rivers and streams total is a mere 80%.
This high percentage results in a proper assessment of nutrients trying to offset dissolved oxygen in the bed below. With a contradicting statistic, what does it mean?
“Broad scale weather patterns over a couple of years can have a benefit to the bay,” said Hales. “On average, wetter years tend to be better for the bay.”
Battling inconsistencies in data, Hales adds with more water flowing in, more nutrients enter the bay with largely pleasing results.
“Not all storm water carries the same amount of nutrient loading and material loading,” said Hales. “Normally really intense events, especially the first flushes of those events, carry more of the materials into the bay.”
It’s the long steady rain that has more of an impact to the bay he adds, because it tends to deliver more water and by doing so increased nutrient loading occurs.
“On hot days when you go out to these shallow ponds the water temperatures will be almost 40 degrees Celsius,” said Hales. “That’s tough on them (marine life) because the water doesn’t hold a lot of oxygen. Their activity and metabolic cycles are driven by the environmental temperature.”
We are familiar with the expression 'too much of a good thing isn't a good thing', and the dueling combination of nitrogen and phosphorous while beneficial, is often a problem for living organisms in the bay.
Similar to the release of nutrients into the bottom bay, sediments are a minor contributing factor because that's one place it enters in from.
“The nutrient load to the bay really is increasing, we recognize a higher load right now but it’s probably been that way for a while,” adds Hales. “In the past one of the things that concerned our office was that the bay appeared to be very sensitive to nutrient loading.”
He adds the Barnegat Bay is a very shallow system, so for example if you fall overboard…you can stand right up unless you’re in the Intracoastal Waterway.
“Shallow systems like that tend to stay very, very well mixed by winds,” explains Hales. “We don’t get what’s called stratification, where you have different layers in the water.”
Hales says because cold waters have a greater density, they sit on the bottom and don’t become oxygenated killing anything at the bottom, thus forcing some of the fish to the top to get some air.
“Estuarine animals are among the most capable of dealing with change,” said Hales. “The temperature they see from low tide to high tide...you can stand out at a creek at low tide and it’s almost like bath water, but when that tide starts to come back in, the water is 10 degrees Celsius colder.”
As the nutrients load and animals seek daily food, their adaption to change in the face of a storm or other event can be traumatic.
“The storms push a lot of things around," said Hales. "There could be tremendous anoxia events associated with those things because you stir up a lot of sediments that have a lot of organic material and there’s a lot of bacterial processing.”
When this happens Hales adds, fish can either move or they die because a lot of them can’t handle the conditions.
“They (estuarine animals) also see greater variation in salinity on a daily basis that most people understand,” said Hales. “Estuarine animals are pretty tolerant of physical chemical change. That’s why they are there.”
Sea grass serves as quite the feast for a number of living creatures within the bay and gives a visual on the water's quality. While it's sister eel-grass is more durable, sea grass finds ways to rebound from depletion.
“Year to year, the sea grass beds are going to evolve and expand in some areas, and contract in other areas," said Vasslides, “Typically what we’ve been seeing in Barnegat Bay, has been a pretty steady and substantial decline in sea grass beds.”
He adds they’ve been looking with Stockton University at sea grass demographics for research, but in the end there’s still concern for the seabeds.
“While the beds might not be changing in size as dramatically,” adds Vasslides. “They’re getting thinner, and thinner, and thinner so we’re losing a lot of the sea grass.”
He adds there are many causes for this concerning trend, with one likely being the nitrogen loading into the bay. While sea grass is fond of nitrogen to a point, in the end it doesn’t take it up as well as it would on land.
Many sea grass beds obtain holes from the algae smothering it.
“There are definitely things that we can do,” explains Vasslides who adds if you look at the bay overhead you’ll see no sea grass beds.
He asks for those who love the water, to be mindful and cautious of using boats because it may lead to a rip in the grassy beds.
“(It's) careless boaters...people bringing either their boats or personal watercraft's in through sea grass beds (and) not realizing that they don’t have enough depth of water,” said Vasslides.
He adds the boats may rip scars into the beds and sea grass has difficulty healing because other competitors are getting there quicker.
While widgeon grass (also serving as food for ducks and habitat for other animals), grows shorter eel grass does better in cooler waters.
Much of what happens in the bay on a daily basis, affects us in similar fashion with many ways to clean the bay says Dr. Hales who says part of the matter is a education process.
“We have become a very disposable society and think that there’s no cost to that," said Hales. “There’s a tremendous cost to trash cleanup and there are other costs with the trash being out in the environment."
What other ways can we help?
“In the very big picture, everybody needs to reduce their impact on the bay,” said Hales. “Everyone needs to do that where they live, where they work, and where they play.”
“In your home it means being more responsible about taking care of your property,” said Hales. “(Like) Taking care of the soil and your landscape.”
Runoff from your yard whether it's from weather related events, seeding or chemically treating your lawn is spilling toxins into the bay.
“In places where there’s lots of turf, we get more nutrient loading to the bay,” said Hales. “If everyone follows all of the components of the fertilizer ordinance...overtime that should reduce the nutrient loading to the bay.”
He adds among the things you can do for your lawn is to aerate the soil, and fluff the ground up to give it a low density.
“The average lawn in Ocean County has a density approaching of within 10 percent of the density of concrete,” said Hales. “When water hits that lawn, it just shoots right off carrying anything that’s on the lawn (ex: pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides) right into the bay.”
Whether you take care of your lawn or have a company come in and treat it, Hales says there are ways to make your yard consumes more of the water fall by adding more organic content to the soil or even reducing lawn areas.
“What we need is for more people to get engaged,” said Hales. “Unfortunately, part of the problem is that not everybody recognizes what the problems really are. “
Water flows throughout the state and the beaches we swim in may certainly have an impact on the water source of the bay.
“The bay is not a bath tub,” said Hales. “If you put two inches of sand on the bottom, the water doesn’t get two inches higher because it’s just running out into the ocean. What drives the level of water in the bay is the level of water in the ocean.”
Hales explains it's physics behind why the water level is driven to this point and since the ocean is higher, the bay then rises and gradually increases its amount.
As numerous towns or cities in Ocean County and throughout New Jersey expand like Lakewood or even projects like the one on Beachwood Beach, is there an eventual cap on the water supply entering our homes, and are we at risk of running out?
“There at some point becomes a minimum flow in a stream below which it doesn’t really support stable healthy population that it had in the past,” said Vasslides. “For some areas that number has been calculated.”
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day each year, the Ocean County Health Department has often collected samples of water from public bathing beaches to determine whether the water contains harmful bacteria.
Hales explains the trade-off between how we use water in regards to expanding on homes versus what’s provided to animals, results in much closer balance for both species so that everyone gets water.
In the end they believe we hold part of the key to cleaning up the bay by examining what are or aren't doing in regards to using or misusing water, taking proper care of our lawn, and being eco-friendly with trash or recycling.