2008-09-10 / Front Page

A new 'voice' to speak for local waters

Debbie Mans is the new head at NY/NJ Baykeeper
BY ERIN O. STATTEL Staff Writer

The quiet motion of the Raritan Bay mesmerized people sitting on the benches at the borough promenade as Debbie Mans looked out over the waters that she now has stewardship over.

Baykeeper Debbie Mans Baykeeper Debbie Mans As the newly appointed baykeeper at New York/New Jersey Baykeeper and executive director of the organization, Mans will be responsible for being the "voice," as she defines her role, for bodies of water including the Arthur Kill, the Passaic River, Jamaica Bay, Raritan Bay and the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers.

A native of northern Michigan, Mans grew up along the banks of the Detroit River, cultivating an affinity for the waters from a young age.

"It wasn't unusual for me to interact with the water," she said. "When you grow up around water, you respect it, and I want to get people here to feel that they have ownership of waterways. I want people to care if they are being polluted."

The new baykeeper is no stranger to environmental work.

"Before I was named baykeeper in April, I was the environmental and energy adviser for Gov. [Jon] Corzine, and before that I actually worked for the NY/NJ Baykeeper as the policy director," Mans explained. "Prior to that, I worked for an environmental nonprofit for two years, so water and environmental issues definitely interest me."

She lived in the Midwest and came to the East Coast by way of Vermont Law School and eventually migrated down to New Jersey.

Mans certainly has big shoes to fill, and she knows it.

"Andy Willner was the baykeeper for 18 years and one of the founding executive directors," she recounted. "He really built up this program and I want to sustain his legacy and continue on to expand our programs."

Andrew "Andy" Willner had been the NY/NJ Baykeeper since 1989 and retired in March.

Mans describes the job of baykeeper as being an advocate of the local waterways.

"The baykeeper is the voice for bodies of water," she said. "There are 170 water keepers internationally. The movement started in the early '90s."

One of the duties that a baykeeper is charged with, Mans explained, is patrolling waterways and looking out for polluters, in addition to advocacy and policy programs.

"We have a boat that was built at Pederson's Marina and we keep it there and work with other clubs such as the Keyport Yacht Club to bring in this working waterfront," Mans said, gesturing to the waters on the other side of the promenade. "We have a staff of 12 full- and part-time employees that work with conservation efforts in urban areas such as the Waykack Creek in Holmdel and the swamp areas in Middlesex."

Willner, Mans said, was one of the pioneers for the New York/New Jersey area.

"Andy Willner was working as a boat builder near the Arthur Kill River when there was an oil spill," she said. "Elected officials didn't want to do anything about it and Andy was outraged and took action."

From there, Mans said, the Hudson River keeper began founding water keepers in the Northeast.

"We have a huge patrol area," Mans said. "We cover the Hudson-Raritan estuary and we look out for the Passaic River and Jamaica Bay, where we have a pump boat that will pump the toilets on boats so people do not flush waste into the bay. We work with municipalities and yacht clubs, as well as other organizations such as the Friends of Holmdel Open Space [FOHOS] and Clean Ocean Action [COA]."

Mans said that the baykeeper's jurisdiction ends at the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers and that other agencies like Clean Ocean Action do an excellent job of monitoring the coastlines.

Some of the programs that the NY/NJ Baykeeper currently have in progress include oyster restoration in the Keyport Harbor and in the Navesink River at Oyster Point.

"Currently we have an active reef here in Keyport at the mouth of the Chingarora Creek," Mans said. "In the Navesink, they are experiencing siltation problems. The silt is coming from upstream and burying the oyster shells. We are currently working with state agencies to find common ground so we can solve this, even if it means getting the oysters off the bottom."

Baykeeper also works with schools such as Rutgers University and local schools like the Bayonne School District.

"Through the oyster restoration we work in the education sector with presentations and oyster gardens," she said. "We have Oyster Gardeners, which are school groups that grow the oysters for a year, monitoring them, measuring them, and then one year later place them on the reefs here in Keyport."

Mans said that with Rutgers University, Baykeeper is trying to create a type of reef that will keep the shells from dispersing with the wave energy.

"We are currently working with Rutgers to develop structures to hold the oysters without disturbing the flow," she said.

Oyster replenishment isn't the only challenge the new baykeeper faces.

"We have a great location here in Keyport with our little storefront," Mans said of the switch of headquarters from Sandy Hook to downtown Keyport. "People are able to come in and tell us about fish dumps or polluters."

Mans said that polluters and water quality are some of the most serious issues that the Raritan Bay faces.

"Water quality makes it difficult for the oysters and with a history of polluters and dangerous chemicals in our water, it makes it hard," Mans said. "Wastewater treatment centers, runoff from people's lawns, algae blooms, it is a challenge."

Mans said that she hopes to change that by changing attitudes and letting people know there is a watchdog guarding the local waters.

"This is a built-up area and I think people don't feel a connection with natural resources or they completely disregard it," Mans said. "This isn't Cape May, but it is just as productive. We need to spread awareness and preserve what's left."

Contact Erin O Stattel at gmnews.com.

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