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Reducing Phosphates in the Water Supply in New Jersey

Water quality protection is a priority not just for the Vineyard Conservation Society but also for many of our non-profit colleagues around the northeast. When not on Martha's Vineyard, Menemsha resident Ben Wolkowitz chairs the Great Swamp Watershed Association headquartered in Morristown, New Jersey, a group dedicated to protecting and improving water resources in a ten-town watershed region about half the size of Martha's Vineyard. His organization advocates for intelligent land use and works to inform watershed communities about how water quality impacts their lives and the local environment.

By Ben Wolkowitz

Over the 30-year history of the Great Swamp Watershed Association we have learned that encouraging more environmentally sensitive behavior requires a combination of science, advocacy and education. This was exemplified in our work on reducing the effects of nutrient runoff on the quality of water in the Watershed. That particular problem has some similarities to the pollution problems that have been impacting Vineyard ponds.

Our starting point was our citizen science efforts directed by our staff scientist. Periodic water testing enabled us to establish baselines, which we could use to determine whether particular chemical levels were stable or fluctuating. Sampling of storm flow augmented this testing so that we could calculate what additions to chemical loading came from surface run off. This work identified the problem and the on going testing enabled us to quantify the effect of our efforts over time.

We found phosphates to be our most significant problem. Careful testing lead us to conclude that wastewater effluent runoff was a primary source; however products with phosphates such as fertilizer and dishwasher detergent were also significant contributors to the problem.

Working with the governments of the ten towns that comprise our watershed, we were able to improve practices that impacted stormwater run-off. In many cases we provided model ordinances affecting stormwater management, which included parking lot runoff, steep slopes construction, roofline design and effective detention basin design. These ordinances were accepted by many of the towns and made a significant difference to construction practices in our area. We also advocated for no net increase rules pertaining to sewerage emphasizing the importance of solving current problems rather than encouraging future development. The message that we consistently emphasized is that it is better to take some reasonable steps now than have to deal with the much more costly impact of poor policy decisions later on. We never assumed that people will do the right thing unless there is something in it for them, and for our local governments it was all about cost savings.              

We also worked at educating the people living in the Watershed. As an example, seminars on rain gardens designed to reduce the flow of stormwater run-off were well attended. Also, at every opportunity we demonstrated the deleterious impact of phosphates on our water supply and we educated people on the phosphate content of dishwasher detergent and fertilizer. Importantly, we were able to demonstrate that using these products contributed to a serious problem with only minor benefit to the individual using the products. Phosphate-free products could also clean dishes and promote green grass. Fortunately, many of our towns had committees charged with improving the environment, and by working with those committees we were able to build support for the use of phosphate-free (or at least reduced) products.

Several environmental groups across the state, recognizing the implications of phosphate loading in our waters due to fertilizer, began lobbying for restrictions on the use and sale of such products. Although not at the forefront of those lobbying efforts we were able to participate and contribute to these statewide efforts, which resulted in a ban of the sale and use of fertilizer containing phosphates. We also believe that our educational work contributed to the size of the constituency favoring a ban. In addition, thanks to consumer pressure many manufacturers have reduced the amount of phosphate in their products and end up using that as a selling point.

As a result of our efforts we have tracked measurable improvements in water quality. Our work continues. There is still much to do; however, I believe we have accomplished enough to share why we feel we had some quantifiable success. In addition to understanding that science, education, and advocacy need to all be pursued if major changes in behavior are going to be realized, we also recognized that you must be prepared to answer the question "What's in it for me?" In trying to change peoples’ behavior you need to reward them when they do change and call them out when they don't. We feel that environmental advocacy without scientific support is not going to be effective, and change will only come with education and the development of political influence.

Hazel England, Director of Education and Outreach for the Great Swamp Watershed Association, assisted with this article and was at the center of many of the activities described.