The ground could be bone dry until, one day, a tiny, wet splotch shows from an underground spring. That splotch is followed by another and another, and they merge with other streams or lakes to create a river system that becomes an invaluable life resource: drinking water.
Such are the streams and tributaries of the New Jersey Highlands Region (not be be confused with Highlands New Jersey in Monmouth County). The region stretches about 60 miles from Phillipsburg to Oakland (not to be confused with Oakland California); its rivers include the Raritan and the Passaic, which also quench the thirst of those in urban areas to the east.
Of course, it’s imperative those headwaters be pristine, and as droughts – or floods – alter water tables the need to ensure high drinking water quality, especially in that watershed region, for all is a double imperative. “If it doesn’t start out as pure water quality, downstream they don’t have a chance,” said Kelley Curran, science manager for the New Jersey Highlands Council.
The region is divided into a preservation area and a planning area. While restrictions are more formidable in the preservation area, there can be development in the planning area, but that, too, is restricted, a move critics say compromises the state’s economic growth.
Ensuring water quality, however, is not a spectator sport: it takes the proverbial village to ensure water equity. And everyone can play a role. So, what’s happening? What still needs to happen? And how can we ensure that water, at the very least, starts out pure at the source?
To better keep watch on quality, Raritan Headwaters Association (RHA) in Bedminster Township, often referred to as the self-proclaimed “Watershed Watchdog,” is partnering with the Rutgers University Water Resources program, the New Jersey Water Supply Authority, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and towns to share and collect data on stream and groundwater health. Waters are monitored through various RHA programs including a community well testing program and the Headwater Sentinel Climate Stations.
According to Kristi MacDonald, the RHA science director, “Everything we put on the land and everything we flush down the drain will eventually make their way into our streams and aquifers, which are both sources of drinking water. We each have a part to play in minimizing pollution and capturing stormwater in and around our homes.”
For instance, state environmental laws restrict any development from being built at least 300 feet near streams that protect critical habitat, or C-1 streams. Also encouraged, but not mandated, is the planting of native grasses along lakes and streams, both to absorb storm runoff that could contain contaminants like fertilizer and pollute, and to deter waterfowl such as Canada geese that have an affinity for wide open land by lakes and ponds.