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HomePollutionLand PollutionDisastrous flooding, pollution threaten Navesink, Shrewsbury rivers - Asbury Park Press

Disastrous flooding, pollution threaten Navesink, Shrewsbury rivers – Asbury Park Press

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Clean Ocean Action discusses the importance of water testing in the Navesink River

Clean Ocean Action discusses the importance of water testing in the Navesink River

Tanya Breen, Asbury Park Press

Most days, the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers, which wind through northern Monmouth County, serve as aquatic playgrounds and beautiful vistas for boaters and some of New Jersey’s wealthiest.

But they are under threat.

Rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and New Jersey’s drenching summer storms imperil low-lying communities nearby and bathe the river banks in pollution. Environmentalists and policymakers warn that property, the local seafood supply and human health hang in the balance.

In a large scale act of cooperation, municipal officials, state employees and environmentalists have partnered to protect the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers. They have collaborated to monitor water quality, find and stop sources of pollution, and enact plans for protecting the rivers and flood-prone neighborhoods around them.

Congress is now getting into the act as well. Lawmakers are considering a $9.55 billion spending package for Army Corps of Engineers projects that, if passed, would help reduce flooding and improve waterways across the nation, including those in New Jersey. Levies, storm surge barriers and flood gates are some of the flood-prevention projects that could be funded by the money. 

Another $50 million congressional spending package is being considered for what is called “living shorelines.” If approved, the program could help restore natural coastal features, such as wetlands and oyster reefs, throughout the country. Such projects help filter pollutants from rivers and absorb flood waters, said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District. The district includes the Shrewsbury River towns of Monmouth Beach, Oceanport, Sea Bright, Union Beach and Long Branch.

“That (program) is something we could do in the Shrewsbury and the Navesink,” Pallone said. “It not only serves the purpose of filtering the pollution that comes from upstream, like the agricultural runoff, or even from fertilizer on your lawn, but it also mitigates the flooding. And that is a perfect thing, because… a lot of times these much bigger Army Corps projects… they’re very expensive and they take years.”

For so many towns along the rivers’ banks — Rumson, Red Bank, Little Silver, Oceanport and Monmouth Beach, to name just a few — their shared futures depend on working together and finding money for pollution and flood-prevention projects. 

The point was underscored in the spring, as a new environmental worry emerged on the Shrewsbury and Navesink, as thousands of dead fish washed ashore. The state Department of Environmental Protection blamed the massive die-off of Atlantic menhaden, a small fish crucial to the marine ecosystem, on a bacterial infection called Vibrio anguillarum.

Both scientists and residents near the rivers found themselves asking the same questions: Is the rivers’ health to blame? Will this happen again?

“It was very upsetting. People wanted to go out and row, but there were all these dead fish on the river,” Navesink River Rowing President Kathleen “Kay” Vilardi said. 

In the last four or five years, water quality has threatened the serenity Vilardi treasures while on the river. 

“I love the river because it just opens up a whole new world — it’s the breathing of the salt air, feeling the wind. You can have a moment alone with nature,” she said. 

Some 300 club members of Navesink River Rowing depend on the waterway for recreation and competitions. They don’t want to get sick from going out on the water or stepping on rotting fish bones in the mud. 

Chris Nolan is one of the river’s frequent users. On an overcast summer morning, Nolan was in his element shouting directions on the Navesink River to the next generation of rowers. 

“The river means a lot to me. I’ve rowed on it for the last six years. I’ve gone through the hardest workouts of my life on the river. Seeing it with the fish washing up makes you wonder: ‘Is this going to get worse? Is it going to get better?’ And I worry if it gets too bad, will they not allow recreational water sports? It worries me,” Nolan said.


Navesink rower talks river health

The Navesink River is a place of recreation today, but threats to water quality is a concern to those who use it

Dan Radel, Asbury Park Press

Thousands of dead, rotting fish and fecal bacteria

In 2016, water in the Navesink River became so polluted that the state  Department of Environmental Protection downgraded the water around shellfish beds and prohibited harvesting.

The decision was due to routinely high levels of fecal bacteria in the river, said Alison Jones, watershed coordinator for the environmental advocacy organization Clean Ocean Action.

As a result, Clean Ocean Action launched an aggressive remedial campaign in late 2016. With the help of local officials, residents and members of the DEP, they helped collect water samples and find various sources of pollution, whether it was horse manure washing into a tributary or a leaking sewer system.

Clean Ocean Action also hosted The Rally for the Two Rivers, which involved partnering with other local environmental organizations and groups invested in the rivers’ cleanliness — like local businesses and marine clubs — to help with an extensive public relations campaign.

The campaign encouraged homeowners to save roof runoff for gardening, urged elected officials to adopt construction rules that were environmentally minded, and discussed the harms of microplastic pollution, among other efforts aimed at cleaning the rivers.  

Experts and environmentalists said that in the years since, the water quality has improved, yet ecological trouble continued to find the waterways. There were cycles of fish die-offs and even a “mahogany tide” algae bloom, Jones said. 

But the spring menhaden die-off was unlike any residents could remember.

Jan Lovy, a fish pathologist at the DEP’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, said it was not clear if water quality played a roll in the outbreak of Vibrio anguillarum in menhaden that left thousands of dead, rotting fish along the banks of both the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers. The resulting stench and swarms of flies brought renewed attention to environmental conditions within the rivers. 

“If they (menhaden) get stressed, their immune system gets suppressed. They can be more vulnerable to some pathogens that are out there,” Lovy said. “That’s always the most difficult part of investigating these fish kills and mortality issues, is trying to tease out what are the stressors that are leading to these events.”

Robert Schuster, bureau chief of Marine Water Monitoring for the DEP, is just one of the experts keeping watch on the water quality in the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers. In the Shrewsbury, water quality has improved in recent years, he said. 

“We’re looking at upgrading over 500 acres of water in the Shrewsbury (river) from what’s restricted now to harvest, to being open for (shellfish) harvest in the winter months,” Schuster said.

The DEP, with volunteers and help from Clean Ocean Action, samples and tests the water quality of the two rivers throughout the year.

They look not just for counts of fecal bacteria, to measure the quantity of pollution, but DNA or RNA markers and antibiotic resistance, Schuster said. The information helps DEP staff determine whether the bacteria comes from dog waste, wildlife or from leaky septic systems and sewers. 

Such detailed testing helped the DEP find a horse farm that disposed of manure too close to a river tributary, discover where sewage infrastructure was leaking and target education campaigns aimed at getting dog owners to clean up after their pets, Schuster said. 

“There are things that we all do in life that we don’t realize impact of water,” he said.

Tracing the sources of pollution has been no easy job in the Navesink River watershed, which spans 95 square miles, flows through seven municipalities and stretches as far west as Colts Neck, according to Clean Ocean Action.

During a recent test at Marine Park in Red Bank, Jones donned rubber gloves, then attached a plastic bottle to a roughly 8-foot long metal pole and dipped it over a railing at the Navesink River’s southern bank.

“The goal of collecting these water samples and analyzing them is to find the sources of the pathogen pollution upstream and to be able to track it down to its source, and ultimately fix that source, so that the pathogens are not entering our waterbodies,” Jones said.

The Navesink River has no lifeguarded beaches, so its water quality isn’t routinely monitored by the DEP, she said. Yet, many people use the river for kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing and other activities that put them in direct contact with the water, as well as any pathogens within it, Jones said.

“We want to make sure we’re monitoring pathogen levels and trying to reduce them right here in the Navesink River, so that it’s safe for anyone that might want to enjoy this beautiful waterway,” she said.

Much of the pollution in the rivers, particularly in the Shrewsbury, has been the result of rural and suburban sources, like upstream horse manure from farms and the stables at Monmouth Park Racetrack, said Pallone, the congressman.

“You have not only agricultural (pollution), you also have runoff that comes from houses when people fertilize their lawn… all that gets into the rivers,” he said.

Portions of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, the Build Back Better Plan, include money for clean water infrastructure projects that would help fund stormwater projects around the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, thereby helping to keep pollutants out of the riverways, Pallone said.

The infrastructure bill — mired in the political logjam holding up so much of Biden’s plans — includes $9.55 billion for Army Corps of Engineers infrastructure priorities, including projects for shore protection, environmental infrastructure and inland waterways.

Stormwater management is an integral part of protecting rivers and the people who live along them. Red Bank Public Utilities Director Clifford Keen knows that without modern stormwater systems, increasing storms and rising river levels threaten to flush pollution from pet waste, lawn fertilizer and roadways into the nearby Navesink River.

Keen said his department already has worked to upgrade flood-prone portions of the borough’s  stormwater and sewer systems, eliminated septic systems and raised important municipal infrastructure near the river to prevent flooding during storms. 

Keen says his department even used poop-sniffing dogs to help identify leaks.

“In the last five years, we’ve really made a huge effort to try to locate any problems we had in our system. These guys (contractors) brought in some coliform-sniffing dogs that… gave us some ideas of where to look,” he said. Coliform is a bacteria found in human and animal waste as well as sewage. 

“The projects are expensive, but it’s in the best interest of everybody that we do,” Keen said.

Two Rivers flooding expected in the future

Bacteria and pollution are not the only threats to the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers, where some of the most expensive homes in the country — such as the $20 million mansion along river put up for sale by Bon Jovi earlier this year — are located.

Though much wealth is anchored to the banks of the two rivers, there’s a cost to living in these areas.

The DEP expects areas along the two rivers, particularly the Shrewsbury, will become inundated by rising sea level and more frequent and severe storms.

By the end of this century, researchers at Rutgers University’s Climate Change Resource Center predict sea levels likely will  rise between 1.7 and 6.3 feet from where they were in 2000, depending on trends in global greenhouse emissions. 

Even a 2-foot rise in sea level would be disastrous for many neighborhoods along the Shrewsbury river. Portions of Sea Bright, Monmouth Beach and Oceanport would be routinely under water. Parts of Seven Bridges Road and Little Silver Point Road in Little Silver would be impassible. A Rumson neighborhood along Waterman Avenue would slowly be engulfed by the Shrewsbury River.

As the waters rise, so does the cost to live in these communities.

A 2015 report on flooding in Rumson found that the average insurance payout for repeatedly damaged homes was $60,719.

In Sea Bright, elevating up to 37 structures in the Shrewsbury River’s basin to avoid flooding would cost more than $12 million, according to a 2016 feasibility study by the Army Corps of Engineers.

In February, an analysis by First Street Foundation discovered that Ocean and Monmouth county homeowners in flood-prone neighborhoods were underpaying for flood insurance, by thousands of dollars annually. The foundation said that while annual flood insurance premiums average $1,826 in Monmouth County, the premiums should rise to $6,145 per year to more accurately reflect the risk of damage.

Ocean County residents also underpaid: the average annual premium of $2,157 should rise to $7,433, according to the foundation. More expensive flood insurance rates are likely to affect some of the 217,000 New Jersey homeowners who have policies by the spring of 2022. 

One of the river towns is fighting back against the rising tide.

In Red Bank, officials are considering a stormwater trust fund to help fund flood prevention infrastructure and encourage homeowners to take action as well. The trust, in essence, would help cover improvements to the existing stormwater system. Cleaner water would enter the Navesink River, flooded stormwater pipes would be upgraded and at-risk neighborhoods would be given financial help on stormwater projects.

But to adopt the trust, “we would have to revise our stormwater management ordinance that we already have in place,” Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna said. “We already have a state-mandated stormwater management (system), but this would be over and above that.”

The borough’s stormwater infrastructure efforts are not just to address current problems, but to curb future ones, Menna said.

The concept is similar to that of a stormwater utility, which like a water utility, would calculate stormwater runoff on a property based on the amount of concrete or structures that prevent rainwater from being absorbed into the ground, said Ed Potosnak, director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. That calculation then determines fees a homeowner or business owner would pay to support the local stormwater infrastructure, he said.

“They will use that money to… clean up the stormwater that leaves these properties before they get into our waterways and pollute them or cause flooding,” Potosnak said.

Unlike the DEP, which only regulates new or more recent development, a stormwater utility would apply to older homes and businesses, he said.

Because of existing state stormwater rules, “if you’re building right now, you’re likely not contributing much to the problem,” Potosnak said. 

In fact, environmentalists and municipal officials say it is often older infrastructure — like aging, leaky combination storm and sewer pipes — that contributes to local water pollution. Many were not built to handle the volumes of heavy rainfall that are happening more frequently as the climate changes, they said.

“The truth is everyone’s dealing with this stuff downstream,” said Potosnak. “How do we stop it upstream? And those are the existing developments that predate any of the new protections that are put in place to prevent flooding and pollution.”

Such a utility provides powerful incentives for homeowners to participate as well. Collecting roof runoff in rain barrels and reusing it for irrigation or constructing rain gardens to filter and absorb stormwater would help to curb flooding, reduce river pollution and result in lower utility fees, Potosnak said.

It’s a proposal he hopes to see adopted someday soon.

Steve Ramaley, owner of Red Bank Marina on West Front Street, wants to see action taken to manage the stormwater.

“Right now the bathtub is half full and the water has no place to go,” he said. “All the stormwater drains right into the river. A ton of debris gets dumped into the river. We need to have maintenance dredging, and not just in the boat channels, the whole river, and we need something on the (storm) drains to catch the garbage before it gets into the river.”

Potosnak said stormwater utilities would help build such infrastructure. Instead, people are paying high costs to their quality of life because of river pollution and flooding, he said.

“We’re talking about not being able to eat fish in the rivers,” Potosnak said. “We’re talking about not being able to drive on the streets when it’s raining. We’re talking about not being able to access businesses that are in flood areas… Houses that get swept away in these kinds of situations. We’re talking about the cost to clean up water before we drink it.”

He added: “Right now we’re paying for problems related to doing nothing. The question is, are we willing to chip in a little bit to do something to prevent the problems that are costly?”

Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, aoglesby@gannettnj.com or 732-557-5701.

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