The bipartisan legislation that Christie signed at the Barnegat Bay will make $400 million available for projects that clean up water used for fishing and swimming. An additional $250 million will be available for drinking water projects. Cities, counties and utilities across the state already have submitted more than 170 applications.
"We have to invest in the things that are going to continue to make New Jersey one of the models in the future for balancing ecological protection with economic development," Christie said. "We can't have one and not the other."
Christie signed three separate bills that passed the Legislature unanimously at the end of June, authorizing the spending from New Jersey's Environmental Infrastructure Trust program, which combines state and federal funds. The fund acts as a revolving loan program, lending money to projects at zero interest or at a fraction of the market rate. Some of the loans are eligible to be forgiven.
In the Barnegat Bay, where pollutants such as nitrogen-heavy fertilizers have spawned an overgrowth of algae, projects will help acquire stormwater maintenance equipment to keep pollutants out of the water. In inland areas of the state, drinking water and sewer infrastructure projects will be eligible for loans.
Borrowing money at the low rates offered by the trust reduces costs by about a third, according to the governor's office. More than 900 projects have been carried out during the 24-year life of the trust, totaling more than $5.6 billion.
"In our current economic climate, projects like these have the added benefit of putting people back to work in addition to providing potable water," said Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, D-Turnersville, a sponsor of the legislation.
Coreen Speranza, 61, moved to Barnegat this year with her husband, seeking a retirement life of crabbing, fishing and ocean views. She said it was important to know the state was committed to cleaning up the water and keeping it clean.
"I hope the improvement comes soon," Speranza said. "I don't think that's ever the way it works, but at least somebody's paying attention."
Department of Environmental Protection Comissioner Bob Martin said in an interview that the funds would be available immediately, and that while Barnegat Bay was a focus, loans were available for projects throughout the state.
Christie announced a plan in December to clean up Barnegat Bay, and in January, signed into law the strictest fertilizer limits in the nation, aiming to prevent the algae-promoting chemicals from leaking into the bay. But a stormwater utility bill the Legislature passed is in limbo awaiting Christie's signature, and he has vetoed other bills that would add protections for the bay.
And the head of an environmental group said much of the funding is mandated by the federal government, meaning Thursday's announcement isn't as much of a triumph for Christie as the seaside ceremony would suggest.
"There's nothing wrong with these projects, but it's such a small piece," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of Sierra Club. "It's like trying to empty out the bay with a small bucket."