By Susan M. Kennedy
WE LEARN FROM our mistakes. History repeats itself. These two sayings illustrate the inconsistencies of life and both come to mind as April 22, Earth Day, approaches. To determine whether we’ve made any mistakes worth learning from, or whether history repeating itself would be good or bad, let’s see how we’ve done so far as stewards of our part of the planet.
America’s first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970. That same day, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was established, making NJ the third state in the nation with an agency dedicated to natural resource protection. But 42 years have passed, our passion for Earth Day has dwindled and, to many, the phrase “conservation of resources” brings to mind their cell phone’s battery life.
Over the years, our enthusiasm is not the only thing to change. NJ has gone through a transformation and someone is keeping track. The Rutgers Grant F. Walton Center of Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis, in collaboration with Rowan University and the DEP, is engaged in a project that measures changes to NJ’s landscape. Beginning in 1986 with updates in 1995, 2002 and 2007, the project has found the following:
Developed Land – As developed land increases, the quality of nearby water bodies declines. From 1986 to 2007, the acres of developed land in NJ increased by more than 300,000. Today, over 30 percent of our 5 million acres is developed. During the five-year period from 2002 to 2007, the rate at which land was developed increased at over four times the rate of population growth.
Upland Forest – Forests contribute greatly to a healthy landscape by providing watershed protection, ground water recharge area, flood and soil erosion control, critical wildlife habitat and climate change abatement. Throughout NJ’s history, forest has been the dominant land category, but by 2007, it was surpassed by the amount of developed land. Now, NJ has more acres of subdivisions and shopping centers than forest, including the forests in the Pinelands and all of our parks and reserves combined.
Wetlands – Critical in their role of water purification, flood control and wildlife habitat, wetlands represent nearly 20 percent of NJ’s land area. From 1986 through 1995, we lost 27,016 acres of wetlands to development. From 1995 through 2002, an additional 16,617 acres was lost, and from 2003 to 2007, 8,652 acres, bringing the total loss for the 21-year study period to more than 52,000 acres. Although the wetlands loss has decreased during each study period, over 8,000 acres is nothing to celebrate and represents an area greater than the entire Hackensack Meadowlands.
Farmland – Since 1986, the rate of agricultural land lost to development has consistently declined due in part to farmland preservation efforts. While this is good news, it is still a sobering fact that in only 21 years, nearly 180,000 acres – or quarter of the state’s total farmland that existed in 1986 – have disappeared.
Impervious Surfaces – The increase in impervious surfaces has a significant influence on water quality. By impeding groundwater recharge and increasing surface water runoff, they alter the function of the natural water cycle. As of 2002, approximately 10 percent of NJ’s total land area, or 490,000 acres, was covered with impervious surfaces. By 2007, this increased to 508,861 acres, or nearly 800 square miles of concrete and asphalt. Between 2002 and 2007, NJ increased the amount of impervious surfaces by nearly nine football fields per day. Ten watersheds are currently at 30% or more of impervious surface, a clear indicator of serious degradation.
Other findings of the project:
Of NJ’s counties, Monmouth County has one of the greatest percentages of existing land already developed. It is also considered a “major hotspot” of upland forest loss (greater than 600 acres/year) and of wetland loss (less than 125 acres/year).
Low-density large-lot residential units consume about 67 percent of the open land developed into housing, but houses only 24 percent of the residents occupying new units.
On a per-capita basis, the land occupied by NJ’s population in 1986 was 0.16 acres, or 6,942 square feet, per person. Between 2002 and 2007, the per-capita consumption of land for each new person added to the population was .76 acres, 4.8 times the 1986 rate, or 33,311 square feet per person.
Recent events highlight attempts to address these issues. On the positive side, a major project to rebuild Ocean County’s storm basins is underway, aimed at reducing Barnegat Bay’s nutrient load by 8,000 pounds annually. On the not-so-positive-side, a DEP report demonstrates that our response to such problems is simply too slow. The agency’s Water Quality Assessment identified 2,112 “impaired” waterways in NJ, meaning waters that don’t meet federal standards even after pollution controls are in place. Most disturbing is the fact that the number of impaired waters has increased since the last assessment, just two years earlier. The Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers are both on the list due to the levels of DDE, DDT, PCBs and dissolved oxygen in these waters, and the levels of mercury in fish tissue.
As another Earth Day comes and goes, will we learn from our mistakes and make a genuine effort to stop the loss of our resources, or will we allow history to repeat itself until nothing is left? As the saying goes, only time will tell. But as that other saying goes, what goes around comes around.
Susan M. Kennedy is an environmental attorney.