DEP Acts to Protect Water Quality of 600 Miles of Rivers and Streams

By designating them as Category One, agency safeguards waterways of exceptional ecological importance
Credit: am dougherty from Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
The Harold N. Peek Preserve on the Maurice River: The freshwater tidal river in Cumberland County is one of those that will receive increased protections.

The state has designated 600 miles of rivers and streams for higher protection to keep their water quality from degrading, an action taken to safeguard these waterways from pollutants, sewage and harmful bacteria.

The rule adopted Monday by the state Department of Environmental Protection is not as expansive as the agency’s original proposal more than a year ago, which sought to designate 749 miles of waterways as Category One (C1) streams.

Even so, environmental groups applauded the step, saying it marks the first time in more than a decade the state has reclassified streams and rivers for higher level of protection, a designation earned for waterways of exceptional ecological importance, whose loss could mean threats to certain endangered species.

Only 5% of New Jersey’s streams meet federal clean-water standards for fishing and swimming. The vast majority of waterways, more than 22,000 streams and rivers, are designated as not meeting federal water-quality standards.

Safeguarding ecologically sensitive waterways

The new classifications afford increased protections for some of the most ecologically sensitive waterways — from the Maurice River in Cumberland County to a stretch of the south branch of the Raritan River in the Highlands to segments of the Ramapo River in north Jersey. The upgrades also include a two-mile stretch of the Cooper River in Camden County, the first urban waterway to be protected.

“The C1 designation puts in place protections from direct and indirect pollution,’’ said Michael Pisauro, policy director of the Watershed Institute. “It is vital that we continue to upgrade waterways before pollution and development degrade them.’’

Indeed, of the approximately 150 miles of streams that were eliminated from consideration for the C1 designation in the proposed draft, 34 miles were removed because of deteriorating water quality, according to the DEP. The rest of the streams were delisted because they failed to meet other criteria necessary for C1 designation.

“We need to protect more waterways with recreational value, drinking water and Highlands waters,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “Protecting waterways before they become polluted is more cost-effective.’’

Opposing cleaner water

While comments on the proposal were overwhelmingly supportive, there was opposition from local communities who argued the new designations would hinder development and from operators of sewage treatment plants who said the new surface-water quality standards could force expensive upgrades of their facilities.

Besides providing 300-foot development buffers along the waterways, the new classification means that any wastewater or other regulated discharges would have to meet more stringent water-quality standards. Many small businesses discharging into these streams also could be affected by the rule.

Many of the streams that were pulled were tied to more pollution, more development and special interest, according to Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “The DEP took two steps forward and one step backward in adopting the C1 rules,’’ he said.

Others were more positive about the new rule. “Would I have liked 749 miles? Yes,’’ said Bill Kibler, policy director of the Raritan Headwaters Association. “I am very happy with the 600 miles.’’

Backers of the rule argued it is very timely because it occurs when the federal government is rolling back protections for water. “This action by DEP couldn’t come at a more critical time, when federal protections are being dismantled,’’ Pisauro said.