Cleaning Up the Navesink River

February 27, 2017
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Local environmental advocates joined The Two River Times owner Domenic DiPiero, in foreground, to exchange information and ideas about Navesink River issues. Photo by John Burton

By John Burton |

RED BANK – As the work continues to alleviate Navesink River contamination, The Two River Times is offering its support.

“If everyone pulls together we can make a big splash,” and move toward remedying the problem, said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, an environmental advocacy and education organization.

Zipf joined representatives from other environmental and business organizations and a representative from the office of Senator Joseph Kyrillos Jr. (R-13) in a Feb. 15 roundtable discussion organized by The Two River Times to talk about solutions and strategies.

Zipf told the gathering it is “absolutely doable,” to return the river to a considerably improved condition by 2020.

For Two River Times owner Domenic DiPiero, this is an issue that strikes home, given he grew up in the Two River area, and continues to use local water ways for recreational boating and fishing. “It’s just a passion of mine,” DiPiero told the group last week. “And the fact that I had to tell my kids not to swim in it is awful.”

The reason for the alarm was due to studies done by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) which indicated elevated levels of pathogens, including fecal matter, and depleted oxygen levels. The DEP reports determined the river’s water quality had declined over approximately the last decade. And that has led the state agency to prohibit shellfish harvesting from approximately 560 of the river’s acres, according to Zach Lees, coastal policy attorney for Clean Ocean Action.

Clean Ocean Action has conducted its own extensive study of the river’s pollution, with Lee’s pointing out that everyone realizes the Navesink is an outstanding water resource and stressing the importance of working to improve its condition.

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Zipf explained that by the 1940s, the area’s shellfish stock, especially oysters, had been depleted through over-harvesting and industrialization had allowed the Navesink River to become increasingly polluted. But by the 1970s, with the federal Clean Water Act and enforcement, the river began experiencing a turnaround, becoming appreciably cleaner. That is until approximately 2005 when it began a backslide with a rise in pollution, Zipf said.

The rise in pollution is seen most noticeably in the shellfish stock, which Lees said functions as a sort of “canary in a coal mine,” a reliable yardstick for measuring pollution levels.

“When I was a kid it was crystal clear,” said Lynda Rose, executive director of Eastern Monmouth Chamber of Commerce, speaking of the river. She recalled fishing and clamming in the water way and said she was shocked to find out the current condition.

The DEP analysis determined the bacterial count in the water appears to rise following storm events, seeming to point the finger at nonpoint source pollution, or storm water runoff, as opposed to a single source of pollution – a leaking sewer pipe or defective septic systems – Zipf explained. “Rarely did we find a single smoking gun,” Lees said.

Clean Ocean Action has been using a Maine-based company and its pollution-sniffing dogs to help track the fecal matter – human, domestic animals and wildlife – that has been found in the river. And dogs have had some luck in narrowing some of the believed sources, such as area horse farms.

The extent of the problem is significant, environmental groups stressed, with Zipf telling how one gram of dog waste carries with it 23 million bacteria.

Zipf said the best way of conducting this is the “no blame game approach,” with organizations like hers working with state, county and local officials to rectify the situation.

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“Rare is the case you can bring the state, all of the towns and environmental groups together,” Zipf noted, as has been the case with this issue.

It goes beyond just mere environmental concerns. “This river is the bread and butter of a lot of businesses,” Rose added, pointing to tourism and recreation as important economic engines.

The river water eventually makes its way into the Atlantic Ocean, Zipf added, an even more important element for the state’s economy. Zipf pointed out that in 1987 there were 800 New Jersey beach closings due to pollution.

The key is education, participants agreed, trying to get the public to change longstanding practices in cleaning up after pets and limiting lawn treatment chemicals; and with municipalities imposing stricter limitations on impervious surfaces on new development projects, helping to curtail storm water runoff. “It is a matter of getting the word out to people,” Zipf said.

Rik van Hemmen, a maritime engineer and president of the Navesink Maritime Heritage Association, recommended what he called a “Zen garden” approach – proceeding steadily and deliberately, going “door-to-door” to get the word out if necessary.

“I really think this is the most important issue where we can affect change,” DiPiero said, offering his support in addressing the problem.

Also participating in the roundtable were Tony Perry, director of legislative affairs for Kyrillos; Debbie Mans, executive director of NY/NJ Baykeeper; and Rick Geffken, an author and historian, who is a regular contributor to The Two River Times.

This article was first published in the Feb. 23-March 2, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times. Subscribe to the newspaper for convenient home delivery.

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