How Clean Is the Water in Your Local Streams?
Hundreds of small rivers, streams, creeks and brooks meander through Hunterdon, Somerset and Morris counties’ mostly-rural landscapes, eventually joining to form the North and South Branches of the Raritan River.
How clean are the waters of these streams? Can you safely wade, swim, fish and paddle in them?
These are questions that Raritan Headwaters, the region’s watershed watchdog, has been investigating and reporting to the public for almost 60 years through its annual stream monitoring program.
In 2016, Raritan Headwaters sampled water at 61 stream sites throughout its 470-square-mile watershed, which is the area that drains into the North Branch and South Branch Raritan River. It found that 10 percent had excellent water quality, 48 percent had good quality, 39 percent had fair quality and 2 percent had poor quality.
One widespread culprit impairing streams in New Jersey is bacteria, according to Angela Gorczyca, water quality manager for RHA.
“If you want to know the major source of pollution in our watershed … it’s poop,” said Gorczyca. Pet waste, faulty septic systems, manure from farm animals and droppings from wild geese are all primary sources of pollution in local rivers and streams, she said. Other causes of stream impairment include road salt, litter, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and chemicals from sources like old dumps.
This information is relevant to the community, Gorczyca noted, because stream water quality is something local residents can influence through their actions.
Here’s what residents can do to improve stream quality:
- Pick up and dispose of dog waste
- Inspect and maintain home septic systems
- Properly store farm animal manure
- Don’t feed wild geese that congregate around ponds and riverbanks
- Maintain vegetated buffers around streams and ponds
- Install green infrastructure like rain gardens to filter runoff water
- Test home wells annually for bacteria
Huge Volunteer Effort
Every June, RHA-trained community volunteers and staff members check water quality at more than 60 stream long-term monitoring sites in the watershed. Four or five new stream sites are expected to be added to the program in 2017, said Gorczyca, bringing the total to over 65.
Working in teams, volunteers and staff visit sites to assess stream characteristics, weather conditions, land use patterns, water uses and suitability of surrounding habitat for wildlife. Volunteers also measure air and water temperature and calculate stream flow.
Using nets, they conduct biological assessments to find out what creatures are living in the streams. A diversity of organisms is good news, especially the presence of a diverse community of “benthic macroinvertebrates” – creatures that live at the bottom of streams and are large enough to see without a microscope.
Three particular macroinvertebrates – the larvae of mayflies, stoneflies and case-building caddisflies – are especially sensitive to pollutants, said Gorczyca, so discovering them in a stream is an indication of good water quality.
“It really tells a story, what you find in a stream,” she said.
Data from the monitoring visits are analyzed and stream sites are graded on a 100-point scale.
Among the sites found to be impaired in Morris County are sections of the Black River in Mine Hill Township, Lake Lillian in Randolph Township, Drakes Brook and South Branch Raritan River in Mount Olive Township, the South Branch in Washington Township, the Tanners Brook and Peapack Brook in Chester Township, and the North Branch in Mendham Township.
Impaired sites in Somerset County include sections of the North Branch Raritan River in Peapack-Gladstone, the Middle Brook and Black River in Bedminster Township, and the Pleasant Run in Branchburg Township.
In Hunterdon County, impaired sites include sections of the Cold Brook in Tewksbury Township, the Rockaway Creek in Readington Township, the Beaver Brook in Clinton, the South Branch and Prescott Brook in Clinton Township, the Pleasant Run in Flemington Borough, the Neshanic River in Raritan Township, and the Back Brook in East Amwell Township.
Maps of all stream sites on the monitoring list can be found at https://www.raritanheadwaters.org/protect/stream-monitoring-program/stream-monitoring-map/.
Follow Up Studies
If a stream is found to be impaired for two consecutive years, Raritan Headwaters conducts follow-up visits in the fall, winter, spring and summer to study the water chemistry in greater depth. If there turns out to be a problem, Raritan Headwaters will bring it to the attention of the local municipalities, state Department of Environmental Protection, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In 2016, Raritan Headwaters received a grant to monitor bacteria levels at 16 impaired streams and non-regulated swimming holes for five weeks in the summer. Each week, the streams and swimming holes were rated “acceptable” or “unacceptable” based on the amount of bacteria found.
According to Gorczyca, a correlation was found between weather and water quality. During rainy periods, she said, more excrement washed into streams and swimming holes, raising the bacteria levels.
“Based on the bacteria study,” she said, “our advice is not to swim in a river for two to three days after rain.”
Raritan Headwaters provides a unique service to the citizens of our watershed and those downstream in more urban areas of New Jersey. Dr. Kristi MacDonald, science director at Raritan Headwaters says, “We monitor the streams every year throughout our watershed, which is something nobody else is doing. When we find the community of organisms in the stream to be leaning in the direction of low diversity and mostly pollution-tolerant species, it is like a canary in the coal mine.” She also added, “Because we have been monitoring the same locations over many years, we can see how agriculture, urban land use, loss of forest and weather events like droughts and storms have impacted water quality. Understanding of the stressors will allow us to work with partners to protect and restore healthy streams and rivers.”
Seeking Volunteer Stream Monitors
Raritan Headwaters is looking for additional stream monitors, especially residents living near sites in Glen Gardner, Clinton Town, Clinton Township, Franklin Township, and Union Township.
This year’s beginner stream monitor training will take place on Saturday, April 29, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Fairview Farm wildlife preserve in Bedminster. Anyone interested in becoming a stream monitor may contact Gorczyca at firstname.lastname@example.org or 908-234-1852 ext. 315.
About Raritan Headwaters
Raritan Headwaters won the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in 2015 and 2016 the category of Water Resources for: improving surface or ground water quality, ensuring sufficient quantities of water through reuse and conservation techniques; and promoting or developing progressive land use policies and watershed management approaches.
To learn more about Raritan Headwaters and its programs, please visit www.raritanheadwaters.org or call 908-234-1852.