Cheers — and Some Caution — for Reclassification of NJ’s Rivers and Streams

Tom Johnson | April 9, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Conservationists extol plan to upgrade hundreds of miles of waterways with new protections. Business interests question the decision

delaware river
The state’s plan to upgrade hundreds of miles of New Jersey’s rivers and streams with new protections to preserve water quality has won wide praise from conservationists, many of whom added a plea: Don’t stop there.

The state Department of Environmental Protection’s proposal to designate 749 miles of waterways as Category One waters affords those streams and rivers the highest level of shields to prevent any degradation in water quality, the first time in 11 years the agency has reclassified New Jersey’s waters.

But business interests questioned whether the upgrades are backed by sound science and worried about unintended consequences, such as impeding towns from complying with affordable housing mandates. The disparate views were aired at a public hearing in Hamilton Township yesterday.

The new designations establish 300-foot development buffers along the streams, and would require any wastewater or other regulated discharges to meet more stringent water quality standards.

For the environmental community, that is just fine with them. While praising the DEP reclassifications, several speakers urged the agency to reconsider for C-1 designation some streams that were left off the list.

‘…a lot of catching up to do’

“Much more needs to be done, and it can’t happen fast enough,’’ said Eric Benson, of Clean Water Action. “This is a good start, but we have a lot of catching up to do.’’

In general, those advocating the reclassification urged the DEP to focus on specific streams — like the north branch of Rockaway Creek, a trout stream for which the agency recently issued a modified draft permit for a new wastewater treatment plant. “I think there were a few missed opportunities,’’ said Bill Kibler of the Raritan Headwaters Association, referring to that stream.

Others urged the state to designate all streams and rivers in the Highlands as C-1 waters, or a special category of exceptional waters, since the region provides drinking water to more than 6 million New Jerseyans.

Elliott Ruga, policy director at the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, urged the DEP to follow up its new classifications with tough regulatory policies.

“At best, the regulatory framework only slows the degradation of state waters,’’ he said. “We are only protecting waters. We are not enhancing or restoring them.’’

Waters flowing through 67 municipalities

The new designations include waters flowing through 67 municipalities ranging from the Upper Delaware River and Lower Delaware River to the Ramapo River in Bergen County and the Atlantic coastal region.

In this reclassification, the agency proposed upgrading 734 miles of waterways for their exceptional ecological value, with suitable habitat to sustain threatened and endangered species. Another 53 miles were designated for their exceptional fishery resources. Thirty-eight miles overlap both categories.

During yesterday’s hearing, several conservationists urged the state to develop new standards that would make it easier for waters to be designated as C-1 streams for their recreational value, or because they are part of the Wild and Scenic river system. Six such waters are so classified — the upper and lower Delaware River, the Musconetcong, the Mullica, Great Egg Harbor and Maurice rivers.

Richard Bizub, of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, argued not enough attention is paid to maintaining stream flows in state waters. “There needs to be a greater recognition that maintaining stream flows is really key to water quality,’’ he said, particularly in C-1 waters.

A wide array of business groups, including the Chemistry Industry Council of New Jersey, the New Jersey Builders Association and New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, however, urged the DEP to ask for a 90-day extension of the comment period, arguing the administrative record for proposing the reclassifications is not complete nor transparent.

DEP urged to row back

George Tyler, a lawyer and former DEP assistant commissioner representing the Raritan Township Municipal Utilities Authority, said there was an incomplete administrative record and difficulty for the regulated community or businesses to access the data used by the DEP to support its proposal. He urged the agency to withdraw the reclassifications and re-propose the rule.

Raymond Cantor, a vice president for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association and another former DEP executive, agreed. “It’s very difficult for the regulated community to look at all of the data and determine whether it is justified,’’ he said.