Mara Tippett, RHA’s new executive director is wasting no time in tackling a list of priorities for protecting the watershed region’s clean water in 2024.

They include RHA’s work on stream restoration projects, monitoring the cleanup of a contaminated site at the headwaters of the Black River, strengthening RHA’s well water testing program, expanding education programs, partnering with Rutgers University on watershed management plans, and investigating Wild and Scenic designation for the upper Raritan River.

A Hunterdon County resident, Mara holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Hunter College, and a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from Johns Hopkins University. A graduate of the Americorps NJ Watershed Ambassador program, she joined RHA in 2016 as a watershed scientist and began managing the well testing program. Mara became associate director in early 2023 and was chosen for the executive director’s post later in the year after Cindy Ehrenclou announced her intention to step down.

Well Testing

Mara’s experience running the well testing program makes her a staunch advocate for this core program. She views it as one of our strongest partnerships with municipalities and a crucial public health service for residents. RHA’s well testing program is dedicated to ensuring the safety of drinking water. It continually evolves to address new challenges, such as providing access to testing for PFAS “forever chemicals” and responding to residents’ increased demand for testing after flood events.

Stream Restorations

Another priority for our new executive director is continuing Raritan Headwaters’ work to restore streams whose health needs improvement. Restoration work can include planting trees to stabilize banks and filter pollutants, removing dams to improve water quality and wildlife habitat, and improving public access. In 2024, a 4-year grant-funded project to plant 10,000 trees along the North Branch is in its third year. Native trees and shrubs are on order for spring plantings and RHA staff is focused on 5 dam removal projects in the South Branch Raritan River.

Monitoring Chemical Cleanup

A significant undertaking for RHA involves monitoring the remediation of toxic contamination at the former Hercules Kenvil Works explosives plant in Roxbury Township, located at the source of the Black River (also known as the Lamington River). This 1,000-acre site harbors harmful chemicals posing risks to human health, necessitating an ongoing remediation process. Demonstrating RHA’s commitment to transparency and responsible practices, Mara secured a $10,000 grant from the DEP Site Remediation Program. This funding enabled them to hire an independent Licensed Site Remediation Professional (LSRP) to meticulously review documents related to the Hercules site cleanup.

Watershed Planning

In partnership with Rutgers University, RHA will begin preparing management plans for sub-watersheds in the Highlands region of the Upper Raritan watershed. The plans will help prioritize conservation efforts and identify strategies for stormwater management including green infrastructure projects such as rain gardens and bioswales.

Emphasizing the upstream-downstream connection, RHA is collaborating with downstream partners to focus on the health and vitality of the Raritan River throughout its entire course, from the headwaters to Raritan Bay.

Wild and Scenic

A long-term goal is to pursue federal “Partnership Wild and Scenic River” designation for the South Branch, North Branch, Black/Lamington rivers, and their tributaries. This multi-year undertaking, though demanding, promises significant rewards. As Mara envisions, designation would unlock essential funding, strengthen the rivers’ protective shield, and garner national recognition.

Our new executive director’s clean water agenda also includes expanding RHA’s educational programs, strengthening our land preservation program, adding more volunteer citizen scientists to its annual stream monitoring program, and continuing the success of its annual cleanup of trash from the banks of local rivers, streams, and lakes.

Mara Tippett’s 2024 priorities support her broader goal for our organization to maintain momentum and build on past successes. She is off to a great start. These are exciting times for Raritan Headwaters!