MANTOLOKING, N.J. — New Jersey is moving to limit how much pollution can be allowed to wash into Barnegat Bay each day, a step environmentalists say is the single biggest way to improve water quality in one of the nation’s most threatened bays.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday unveiled the second part of his plan to save the bay, an effort begun shortly after he took office more than seven years ago. The $20 million effort includes setting a daily limit on the amount of nitrogen and other pollutants that can be allowed to wash into the bay.

It’s a step environmentalists have long sought, and one that Christie resisted for most of his two terms in office, saying more study was needed. His successor will take office in January.

“From the very beginning of my administration I have made it a priority to do what no other administration ever attempted — to implement a cohesive strategy to protect an ecological treasure that is so important for area residents, visitors and the entire state,” said Christie.

Yet he had long resisted setting numerical limits for pollution entering the bay, vetoing a bill in 2011 that would have set them. Christie said at the time that “many of the timeframes and requirements mandated by the bill are not realistic.” He also said the state needed more research to develop standards for the amount of phosphorous, nitrogen and sediments that can be allowed to enter the bay each day.

“My sense is the governor wanted a legacy on Barnegat Bay, and he’ll finally get it, but I wish he had done this seven years ago,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “A lot of damage has been done to the bay in the meantime.”

Christie did not set a timetable for his Department of Environmental Protection to adopting the standards.

David Pringle, New Jersey campaign director for the Clean Water Action environmental group, accused Christie of “trying to take a victory lap for a marathon he didn’t run. Where’s he been the last seven years between announcements?”

The DEP recently completed a study of Barnegat Bay, a shallow, narrow 42-mile long waterway surrounded by some of the state’s most heavily developed coastal areas.

The agency found parts of the waterway, including its most heavily developed northern section, are impaired, and that other sections are at risk. But the report also asserted that “many parts of the bay and its resources are healthy.”

Christie unveiled a plan to help Barnegat Bay in 2010 that included adopting the nation’s toughest standards on the amount of nitrogen that can be sold in fertilizer within the state. But environmentalists immediately called for daily limits on pollutants that are permitted to enter the waterway.

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