Raritan Headwaters Association > About Raritan Headwaters Association > History of Raritan Headwaters Association
The natural boundaries of watersheds, rather than the artificial lines of political jurisdictions were deemed the most rational basis for action.

History of Raritan Headwaters Association

Just as our aims are clear, so also are some of the ways of achieving our goals. Our Association should act as the spark to initiate conservation action projects. At times it will be appropriate for this group to be the coordinator between local people and government agencies to accomplish special jobs. But our day in and day out function will be in the field of conservation information and education. Most of us know all too little about the water conditions, soil, forestry and other resource problems right here in our own community. And yet, our living, our comfort, and the beauty of this unique watershed depend largely on how well we look after our natural resources. — Headwaters, 1961 (Upper Raritan Watershed Association newsletter)

The Beginning

During the late 1950’s, small groups of forward-thinking people began meeting in living rooms throughout the region to discuss the future of their communities. There was a general consensus that the pace of development was too fast, that natural resources were being heedlessly destroyed and, unless action was taken, a valued quality of life would be dramatically and irrevocably lost. This was twenty years before an Earth Day was established and there were only minimal governmental regulations in place to protect “the environment.”

Watersheds: A Rational Basis for Action

Small URWA LogoSBWA LogoAction was needed, but what kind? The natural boundaries of watersheds, rather than the artificial lines of political jurisdictions were deemed the most rational basis for action. Within those boundaries, people realized that effective action would depend on a careful concern for physical, economic, social and biological processes taking place. They also understood that attention must be given to those processes outside the region that may alter its nature. In 1959, with help and advice from the Stony Brook Watershed Association (which had been established in 1949), two groups in the Raritan River’s headwaters region moved ahead to incorporate themselves as independent, non-profit watershed organizations — the South Branch and Upper Raritan Watershed Associations (SBWA and URWA).

The Early Years

Hermia Lechner

Portrait of SBWA Founder Hermia Lechner

Both SBWA and URWA were established as purely voluntary organizations in their early years. Each group benefitted from the visionary leadership of energetic women. SBWA was led by Hermia Lechner, an environmental educator who operated a summer day camp in Hunterdon County.  At URWA’s helm was Helen Woodman, a tireless environmental advocate from Somerset County.

Richard Goodenough

Dick Goodenough in 1965, receiving the New Jersey Conservation Award

In 1963, Richard D. Goodenough, a recent graduate of the University of Maine was hired as URWA’s first executive director. He embarked on the Association’s first great battle when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey proposed the location of a metropolitan jetport in Readington Township that would have significantly degraded the region’s natural and community environments. After a bitter fight, the proposal was abandoned. Also, in that period, SBWA was promoting the creation of the Hunterdon County Park Commission and was actively working to promote the establishment of environmental commissions to ensure that natural resources would be protected as municipal leaders created local policies and plans.

A Scientific Basis for Action

In 1967 URWA completed the first watershed-wide natural resource inventory in the state evaluating 23 environmental factors such as geology, soils, aquifer yields, water quality, and open space. This pioneering work formed the basis for many of the planning and zoning decisions made throughout the watershed region.

In the early 1970’s, SBWA produced natural resource inventories for each municipality and created model ordinances for the protection of critical environmental areas. SBWA’s signature Community Well Test Program was also established at this time to understand the health of ground water supplies while giving citizens an opportunity to test their drinking water.

The 1970’s: Promise & Problems

The decade of the 70’s witnessed the growth of the modern environmental movement, the establishment of State and Federal environmental regulatory agencies, and the passage of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Both SBWA and URWA advocated for more and better environmental planning at the local level and fulfilled the promises of the Clean Water Act by actively participating in the new planning opportunities created by federal law.

At the end of the decade, New Jersey witnessed a growing concern over solid waste and toxic chemical contamination. In 1980, URWA first identified surface and ground water pollution leaching from a hazardous landfill located in Washington and Chester Townships. The Combe Landfill contained 60 different chemicals, eight heavy metals and radioactivity. Under URWA’s leadership, the municipalities and a group of citizens successfully closed the site, listed it on Superfund and “watch-dogged” the $23 million clean-up effort.

The 1980’s: Water Supply Woes & Waste Crises

In the early 1980’s a drought triggered the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to solve the water supply crisis by formulating a plan to construct a pipeline that would divert massive amounts of North Branch water to the Upper Passaic River. URWA pressed policy questions and finally the project was de-authorized. However, the state’s fundamental lack of commitment to rational planning remained. In cooperation with other environmental groups throughout the state, SBWA and URWA worked to ensure passage of the Water Supply Bond Act of 1981. This effort remains the cornerstone of water supply planning in New Jersey.

We worked to ensure passage of the Water Supply Bond Act of 1981. This effort remains the cornerstone of water supply planning in New Jersey.

The 1980’s also witnessed the continuation of the solid and toxic waste crises. Morris County proposed 11 potential sites for new solid waste landfills while Somerset County proposed nine. Based on its experience with the Combe landfill, URWA led the fight to remove these potential threats. Later, the Hazardous Waste Facilities Siting Commission proposed more serious threats — a toxic waste incinerator along the Lamington River and a “land emplacement” facility in Bedminster. URWA worked with a consulting firm to challenge these threats, and the proposals were ultimately deterred. Without an inexpensive and easy solution for dumping, many of New Jersey’s more progressive industries began to alter production processes to reduce toxic wastes.

The 1990’s: Preservation, Stewardship & Education

Recognizing the importance of land preservation to watershed protection, in 1993 URWA conducted a study to explore the feasibility of expanding its efforts to preserve open space. The results indicated the need for a Conservation Easement Program, augmenting its existing preserves that had been donated for safekeeping by conservation-minded landowners. The largest such preserve is Fairview Farm, the 170-acre former dairy farm in Bedminster that became URWA’s headquarters when it was bequeathed by the Zuhlke family. SBWA also engaged in land preservation efforts, primarily by channeling the Association’s Green Acres funding into partnership projects. URWA and SBWA together have contributed to or directly preserved over 5,000 acres of watershed lands.

In 1994 SBWA created a Volunteer Stream Monitoring Program to collect benthic macroinvertebrate data that would help assess water quality. This program continues to foster citizen stewardship of the region’s waterways and we provide our scientific data to the state and to municipalities, which use it as they consider resource policies and land use decisions.

URWA was the first non-profit environmental group in New Jersey to obtain and implement geographic information systems (G.I.S.) technology.

URWA was the first non-profit environmental group in New Jersey to obtain and implement geographic information systems (G.I.S.) technology. The technology provides advanced computer analysis to inform our stewardship and land preservation programs and offers valuable information to local governments and our partners as we work on regional and statewide initiatives. In the late 1990’s URWA implemented the Non-Profit G.I.S. Users Community, a training and problem-solving program to assist other non-profit organizations.

Because there were too few opportunities and resources for our citizens (particularly children) to learn about the natural environment, both SBWA and URWA stepped up their educational activities in the1990s. Programs for school and scout groups were expanded within each organization, as were nature day camps and family programs. Both groups also enhanced their services to communities by organizing hands-on stewardship projects to remove trash and other debris from streams, eradicate invasive plants from natural lands, plant native trees, create and maintain trails in local preserves and establish rain gardens, all carried out by citizen volunteers across the region.

The 2000’s

As the 1990’s gave way to the 2000’s SBWA and URWA conducted organizational self-assessments and created plans to address the challenges of the new millennium. It was clear that as environmental watchdogs and advocates for science-based planning, their services were essential to the future health of the region. Over the decade, each organization broadened its outreach, research and advocacy activities to address emerging issues such as regional planning URWA South Branch logoin the Highlands, sustainable funding for open space preservation and water quality management planning. The expansion of these activities also helped the organizations ensure that sound science would be readily available to guide policy-making on the local, regional and state-wide levels.

Given the vast historical, geographical and cultural similarities between URWA and SBWA, as well as a long history of collaboration on key environmental issues, the Boards of Trustees of both organizations met in 2010 to discuss the concept of merging. They determined that if they came together, they would ultimately: leverage skills and strengths to achieve greater impact, be more effective, increase program capacity, be more sustainable and have a stronger voice in Trenton.

On October 1, 2011, the two 52-year old organizations merged to become the Raritan Headwaters Association. Our name is representative of the 470 square-mile area that makes up the headwaters region of the Raritan River Basin. Today, our water quality, education, stewardship and land preservation programs are strong and effectively serving the region’s citizens and RHA is a leading voice for clean water in New Jersey.