While the world’s current wars are waged over oil, our future wars are very likely to be waged over fresh, drinkable water. The twin factors of runaway population growth and pollution are certain to make the commodity even more scarce than it already is.
Jim Waltman, executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, gives a free talk on “Water, Water Everywhere: But for How Long?” on Wednesday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Call 609-924-9529.
The Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association covers the 26 municipalities with land that is drained by the two rivers and their various feeder streams. For the last 59 years the association has worked to study and protect these waters, as well as lakes such as Carnegie and Etra, along with the Assunpink creek and other surrounding wetlands. To find out if your community falls under its aegis, or if you would like to join the effort, visit www.thewatershed.org. Its museum and headquarters, open to the public, is located at 31 Titus Mill Road. Call 609-737-3735 for more information.
Waltman, who has headed the organization for 16 months, has vast environmental experience here and abroad. He replaces Noel McKay, the energetic previous executive director, who has moved north to head the Vermont Forum on Anti-Sprawl (www.vtsprawl.org).
Waltman was born and raised in Princeton, and, as a boy, toured all around the state’s outdoor areas with his family. After graduating from Princeton University in l986 with a B.S. in biology, he earned an ornithology graduate degree from Yale University’s school of Forestry and Parks.
During these graduate years Waltman journeyed to Venezuela, the Galapagos Islands, and other hinterlands in search of winged wildlife. Struck with the need to protect and conserve, he moved to Washington, D.C., advocating for the Wilderness Society, the Wildlife Federation, and the Audubon Society. He brings to central New Jersey’s waters not only knowledge and enthusiasm, but also political savvy.
Yes, there do indeed remain a few effluent pipes surreptitiously leading out from the backs of warehouses and factories into our pristine streams. But to find the real polluting villains, Waltman suggests, as did his predecessor, that we look in the mirror. “Most of our water pollution comes from what they call ‘non-point-source pollution,’” explains Waltman. “This is everything that washes off our fertilized lawns, chemically treated roofs, and overly paved, oily highways.” This is the threat that must be understood and minimized.
See it — pave it. What part of “flood plain” don’t you understand, asks Waltman? “Last year’s record flooding should have shown people the limits of where they can build,” he says, “but somehow it made no dent in the public consciousness.”
It is an insightful turn of phrase that “developed land” in our common parlance is that which has been paved. Of course, there is money to be made from this developing and of course our growing (albeit slowly) state requires new houses. But both the needs of home builders and buyers can be met by local townships that plan their growth wisely.
“The real decisions that shape our future get made in all those late night town council meetings which we need to attend,” Waltman says. Much more vital than battling whether houses or one giant warehouse should be permitted on a certain section, he notes, is to examine the area’s waterways and avoid encroaching on them.
Lawn versus water care. People joke that the suburbs are places where we shave off all the trees and name streets after them. But with the exception of excess paving, probably no single thing has done more harm to our waterways than the myth of the monocolor lawn. As dandelions, violets, and other pretty spring flowers thrust up their bright heads, many homeowners rush to drench their yards in killing chemicals. The thinking tends to go like this: If it’s not a plastic-looking putting green, my front yard will bring down real estate values.
As we heap on 5-10-5 fertilizer, along with other blends of weed and feed for garden and lawns, we in effect pour an overwhelming amount of nitrogen and phosphorous into the water. These amounts are enough to kill both necessary bacteria and fish.
Decanting the rain. Since 2004 New Jersey has mandated that all new development must catch 100 percent of the property’s storm runoff in detention basins. These basins must be designed to remove 80 percent of the suspended particles from the water. Some of them are pollutants, such as wash-in from roofs or roadways. Others are just huge clumps of organic sediment that also can foul the water’s potability and livability.
While the detention basin mandate is an excellent start, it is not a panacea. Waltman points to the quarry operated by 3M in Hillsborough. “Over time the quarrying has released tiny, tiny particles, suspended in the water, that will never naturally filter out, in any amount of time.”
Concocting solutions. Our primary focus must remain to save what Waltman calls the high recharge areas. These are those flood plain or streamside areas that act as ready conduits into our waters. This is the first ground to protect and the last ground townships should permit to be covered up with development of any kind. Further, we should actively revegitate these areas, so they will filter pollutants and stop eroding sediments.
As for the lawns, Waltman suggests we simply get over it. “Dandelions are beautiful,” he declares. “Your neighbors won’t tar and feather you if your grass has a few bare spots.” In fact, the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed Association offers several environmentally wise and attractive ground covering plans to keep your lawn enviable.
“An enormous amount of new organic technology has come to the fore,” says Waltman, “both for crop care, and for cleaning our waters. Yes, New Jersey will continue to expand, but with so many people laboring for a good environment, I personally remain hopeful.”