Deciding how to protect Barnegat Bay and help it recover after years of development has harmed the bay's ecosystem isn't an easy task.
With Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin and several local officials on hand Wednesday, state-of-the-art stormwater basins were unveiled at Ocean County College that should help ensure the long-term health of the bay.
"Today is part of our commitment overall to the bay," Martin said, and reiterating Gov. Christie's 10-point plan to improve and protect Barnegat Bay. "The single most important issue is stormwater runoff. We believe these basins will play a key role in filtering out those nitrates before they reach the bay."
The trio of basins on the college campus are actually part of a larger project of eight storm basins in the county that have been retrofitted with what amounts to manmade wetlands that are designed to treat rainwater by removing the harmful nitrates that cause a number of problems in the bay, including algae blooms due to nutrient-loading.
Four additional basins in Toms River and a fifth in Lacey also are part of the project, which has cost $5.7 million.
Freeholder John C. Bartlett, the liaison to the college and to the county's Parks and Recreation Department, said the funding for the basins comes from the state's Environmental Infrastructure Trust fund. Christie set aside $100 million directly targeted to addressing issues that impact the health of Barnegat Bay, Martin said.
Also in attendance were Freeholder Director Gerry Little, Freeholder Joseph Vicari, Assemblyman David Wolfe, and Toms River Mayor Thomas Kelaher.
Originally the agreement was set up for the county to borrow the money from the trust, with the county paying back 75 percent it at a low interest rate, and the state forgiving 25 percent of the loan. But Bartlett announced Wednesday that the state was so impressed with the project that it is rewriting the loan agreement to forgive 100 percent of the loan.
"With the development at Ocean County College we've had to clear a great deal of land," Bartlett said, so they wanted to create basins capable of handling the runoff from not only the parking lots and buildings that are being added now, but also for what could be added in the future. The basins that were developed are capable of handling the majority of storms that Ocean County sees.
The only time the basins will not be able to contain the water is in the event of something like Hurricane Irene, said Frank Scarantino, Ocean County engineer.
Scarantino said the basins are a manmade wetlands, designed for the roots of the plants to filter the water, with the treated water pushed through the layers of the basin to pipes that will channel it to the bay.
The bottom layer of the basin is a heavy duty PVC liner — so that the rain water won't just soak into the earth. Atop the liner is a geotextile fabric to protect the liner. That is covered with a 3-1/2-foot layer of large gravel, and that gravel is covered by 4 inches of finer gravel, which he referred to as pea gravel.
Finally, it's covered with 8 inches of wetlands topsoil that is fairly impervious, and a variety of wetlands plants — chosen for their ability to remove nitrates from the water and soil and release them into the air as nitrogen -- distributed throughout the basin. The plants filter the water through their roots, and the cleaned water is forced downward through the gravel by the pressure of new rainwater on top, Scarantino said. Eventually the treated water is forced through piping out of the basin and to the bay, as clean water to help improve the bay's water quality.
Because the plants release the nitrates into the air in form of nitrogen gas, they won't be nitrogen-loaded, so when they're harvested — which Scarantino said would be done from time to time to keep the basins functioning efficiently — they won't create a problem.
The basins at Ocean County College also include to permanent wet ponds, that spill into the rest of the basin as they get overloaded. They're also designed to be aesthetically pleasing for visitors to the new Kean-Ocean gateway building that's under construction near the two showcase basins, Bartlett said.
Scarantino said the basins should be operating at 100 percent efficiency within 18 to 24 months.
Stan Hales, director of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, which is housed at the college, said the basins are based on a design tested in New Hampshire, and has worked in that colder environment with very high effiency for removing nitrates.
"This is an important first step in improving the health of Barnegat Bay," said Hales, who noted it was the partnership that funded the studies by the US Geological Survey of the stormwater runoff issue and it impacts on the bay.
Three of the other basins in Toms River are located off Todd Road and Vermont Road, in the Long Swamp Creek watershed, which Scarantino said is an impaired watershed. The fourth one is near Toms River High School East.
The Lacey basin is just south of Lacey Road, Scarantino said.