Barnegat Bay guardian wrapping up his career
News Source: Asbury Park Press
June 26, 2012
By KIRK MOORE, STAFF WRITER
ISLAND HEIGHTS — For years, David Friedman and his friend, soil scientist Chris Smith, made a curious pair, literally poking their way across lawns in Ocean County, jamming shovels and thin metal rods into the grass.
Whenever someone was intrigued enough to ask what they were doing, Friedman took it as an opportunity to educate them about the problem he’d found: thousands of acres of soil that, beneath a thin veneer of green, are actually hard as concrete and shed more tainted storm water runoff to Barnegat Bay.
Years after construction, the footprint of heavy equipment stays in Ocean County soils as a layer of compacted dirt just a few inches under the surface.
By contrast, where there’s a natural 50 percent void space in unpacked soil under pine trees, the ground can soak up 15 inches of rain in an hour — a hurricane-size deluge, Friedman says.
“The lawns are not the problem — it’s the functionality of the soil below that gives lawns a bad name,” said Friedman, the recently retired director of the Ocean County Soil Conservation District. “The greatest single fact in all the development that has gone on here for years is the disturbance of these native soils.”
It took 15 years for Friedman and Smith to get past a disbelieving bureaucracy and have their findings publicized, but it’s had a major impact.
New Jersey’s recent laws regulating lawn fertilizer and requiring soil restoration at construction sites are getting attention in other states — especially around Chesapeake Bay, which is afflicted with the same ills as the Barnegat estuary.
In 2011, the Legislature moved to control the problem of soil compaction by requiring new construction site standards to minimize soil disturbance and require restoration of packed soils at new buildings.
That can be said to be part of Friedman’s legacy, as one of a small band of people who began raising alarms about Barnegat Bay’s condition more than 20 years ago.
In retiring from the conservation district, Friedman also stepped down from the advisory board of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, the federally funded program that coordinates research and restoration work in the bay watershed. Other longtime advisers also stepped aside this spring as the program brought in new people.
Among environmental workers, Friedman gets credit for focusing the attention on Barnegat Bay farther upstream — deep into the 660-square-mile watershed extending into Monmouth County.
That’s where the bay’s nutrient pollution issues arise and flow downstream to shift the bay’s ecology away from native fish and clams and toward algae blooms and stinging sea nettle jellyfish.
“We have these compacted soils, and that’s the crusade Dave has been on forever,” said David Ertle, a supervisor with the Ocean County Utilities Authority who’s worked with Friedman on environmental projects. “To grow good grass, you need good soil. That’s always been Dave’s message.”
When Friedman’s office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture published those soil compaction findings in 2001, the environmental implications were clear and fairly staggering. Years of engineering calculations for how much rainfall soaks into the ground and how much runs off the land and ultimately to Barnegat Bay were way off the mark.
The first clue to that discovery came to Friedman from inspections of housing developments in Ocean County.
Friedman joined the Ocean County Soil Conservation District in the 1970s, as the county’s residential building boom was gathering momentum. New Jersey has 15 soil districts, semi-autonomous agencies with links to the state Department of Agriculture that support farming and implement state regulations to control soil erosion and losses to storm water.
In the mid-1980s, Friedman noticed something strange at the subdivisions then popping up.
“I noticed some of the storm basins were holding water before they had even put up the first house,” Friedman recalled. He called his friend Chris Smith, a soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“He noticed all these detention basins were full, with no explanation why,” said Smith, who came up from his Hammonton office to inspect the sites. “The soil was as sandy as sandy can get, and they still held water.”
But NRCS managers were unwilling to pursue the mystery, seeing it as outside their mission of supporting agriculture and resource agencies — or, as one told Smith, “We only help people who want help.”
“So the whole thing stopped,” he recalled.
But Friedman and Smith remained intrigued by the riddle of super-dense disturbed soils. Rebuffed again in 1989, it wasn’t until the late 1990s, when Smith returned from a transfer to Texas, that they started again.
“I had tools manufactured to measure bulk density” — the weight per volume of soil, an important measure of compaction, Smith said. Friedman got some grant money to support the project, and in 2001 the soil district and NRCS jointly published the results.
In a bid to rewind decades of ecological damage to the bay, the state Department of Environmental Protection is putting out more than $100 million in available Environmental Infrastructure Trust Fund loans to rebuild storm water systems in the bay watershed.
Democratic state legislators want to authorize new stormwater utilities with the power to raise money for building systems — a proposal bitterly opposed by anti-tax Republicans.
“When the county buys a woodland tract, they’re not just buying that canopy. They’re buying acres that function as a natural storm water utility,” he said.