To boaters, the new, brightly-colored buoy anchored just outside the main channel south of the Route 72 causeway bridge is a curious addition to the bayscape that few will think about after whizzing past.
But the buoy is one of four across the bay that officials say will help paint a detailed picture of how the entire waterway can be transformed into the ideal estuary.
The buoys dot the bay in four strategic locations: the mouth of the Toms River, the area just south of Oyster Creek, adjacent to the Route 72 bridge and near Little Egg Inlet.
"We are working to have a model of how water moves throughout Barnegat Bay," explained Jill Lipoti, Director of the Division of Water Monitoring and Standards for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Once that model is developed, she said, a plan can be devised and put into action that will allow the bay to function in an optimal way.
The buoys measure the condition of the bay in real-time and transmit the data back to state officials and researchers at Rutgers University. Those researchers are trying to determine not only how water moves through the bay, but how the quality of the water changes as it moves, Lipoti said.
The buoys calculate levels of dissolved oxygen, conductivity (salinity), temperature, pH levels and turbidity, said Bruce Friedman, Chief of the Bureau of Marine Water Monitoring for the DEP.
"The buoys will give us constant, continuous data for some of the parameters that change," he explained.
Lipoti said the buoys are an improvement over the previous method of studying the way water moves through the bay. In the past, she said, researchers had to physically collect samples once a day, bring the samples to a lab and have them analyzed.
"The problem is that, things change over the course of a day, and you only have one sample for an entire 24 hours," said Lipoti.
Once enough data is collected over the course of the summer season, it will be used to potentially reshape the bay into a healthier waterway, she said.
For example, if an area of the bay needs more clean seawater, dredging a new channel from Barnegat Inlet might help, Lipoti explained. Areas where salinity levels are too high might benefit from additional treated freshwater being discharged into the bay rather than directly out to the ocean.
"We have to prove that the model works," Lipoti said.
The four buoys are positioned so they collect data from the various "zones" of the bay where conditions differ significantly and respond differently to factors such as rainfall and climate, said Bob Schuster, section chief of the Bureau of Marine Water Monitoring.
"The freshwater areas respond much differently than the areas near the Route 72 bridge," he said.
As for this season, the bay seems to be holding in decent shape, Schuster said.
"This week we've seen fairly low concentrations of chlorophyll in the water," he said, though the bay is continuing to be free of the "brown tides" that plagued the waterway several years ago.
Editor's Note: NJDEP is planning on publicly displaying the live data on a Rutgers website once all of the buoys are operational. Schuster said the website should be active in a few weeks. When it is, check back in this space for the address.