A More Fishable, Swimmable New Jersey: 600 Miles of Waterways Win Major Protections Under NJDEP’s New Rule
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection published a rule yesterday that it will apply one of its strongest clean water protections to 600 miles of rivers and streams throughout the state. The new Category One designations are the first made in over a decade and set strict limits on pollution and development for parts of the Salem River in South Jersey; the South Branch of the Raritan and Lamington Rivers and Jacob’s Creek in Central Jersey, and the Ramapo River in North Jersey. The upgrades also include a two-mile stretch of the Cooper River, the first urban waterway in the state to be protected.
“Category One stream protections are a win for the people of the Garden State at a time when we could really use good news,” said Doug O’Malley, Director of Environment New Jersey. “Not only will these protected waterways provide clean, safe outdoor spaces, they will also play a major role in New Jersey’s economic recovery: fishing and outdoor recreation supply $11 billion dollars a year and more than 100,000 jobs to local communities. These measures will also save taxpayers billions of dollars in water treatment and flood reduction costs.”
Second only to the protections for streams in state and national parks, Category One provides the strongest legal means to safeguard waters from pollutants, sewage, and harmful bacteria. In addition to pollution controls that allow for more fishing and recreation, a Category One waterway enjoys 300 feet of protected landscape and wildlife habitat along both of its banks.
The upgrades were overwhelmingly popular when NJDEP proposed the new rule at public hearings last year. The department received almost 400 official comments in response and over 80% of these were supportive. “For more than a decade, this critical tool lingered on the shelf at NJDEP,” O’Malley continued. “In an era where the federal Clean Water Act is under attack, the Murphy Administration’s move to strengthen state-level protections is key to making our waterways destinations, not dead zones.”
The new protections also highlighted the need to move quickly to protect waterways before they become polluted. Originally, 749 miles were proposed for increased protections. However, a total of 151 miles (with two overlapping miles) were withdrawn because new data showed the waterways and their immediate surroundings had become too degraded for Category One protections.
“Protecting waterways before they become polluted is more cost-effective,” explained O’Malley. “We need to protect more waterways around the state before they become polluted and expand the criteria to include more waterways with recreational value, drinking water and Highlands waters. For example, millions of dollars of private and public investments have been made to restore the Paulinskill River, which was removed from designation. Those investments are now at risk without criteria to limit pollution.”
The increased protections were based upon scientific data which NJDEP reviewed prior to making its final decisions. The NJDEP stated that: “This rulemaking allows appropriate economic growth to occur while ensuring that the equally important natural resources of the State are preserved. The State’s natural resources, including water resources, are held in public trust, and their protection is in the best interest of all New Jersey residents, particularly given the cost of restoration, loss of revenue among industries dependent on high water quality, and the widespread costs of flooding resulting from unwise development in flood-prone riparian areas.”
A broad coalition of conservation groups, members of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative and the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, rallied public support and data for the upgrades, including the Musconetcong Watershed Association, the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, The Watershed Institute, the Delaware RiverKeeper Network, Raritan Headwaters Association and PowerCorps Camden, as well as the outdoor organizations Upstream Alliance and Urban Promise. Several released statements below:
Southern New Jersey/Camden/Cooper River — Don Baugh, President, Upstream Alliance:
“This is a magnificent moment for those of us that promote recreation on the Cooper River. As an urban waterway once devoid of life, this is a testament that the river has returned to life, teeming with birds, fish, and even the threatened Eastern Pondmussel. While the Cooper River is the first urban waterway in New Jersey with this designation, we want to make sure it is not the only. This designation on a river some still think not worthy of recreation, will help get the word out about the magic of this river and of all of New Jersey's waterways, and the opportunities to paddle, fish and play on them, at a time many of us need that magic.”
Northern New Jersey/Warren and Hunterdon Counties — Alan Hunt, Ph. D., Policy Director, Musconetcong Watershed Association:
“Protecting clean water helps keep our region’s tourism economy afloat,” said Dr. Alan Hunt, Policy Director for the Musconetcong Watershed Association. Streams with increased Category One protections include Mine Brook (Washington Twp., Morris Co.), and Lubbers Run and Cowboy Creek (Byram Twp., Sussex Co.). Streams with water quality improvements that now support Trout Production include: Scout Run (Holland Twp., Hunterdon), a tributary south of Asbury (Bethlehem Twp., Hunterdon Co.), and a tributary in Stephensburg (Mansfield Twp., Warren County). “Additionally, we are heartened that the NJDEP expressed interest in establishing recreation-based standards to protect these places we love to fish, boat, and swim,” said Dr. Hunt.
Northern New Jersey/ New Jersey Highlands — Elliott Ruga, Policy and Communications Director, New Jersey Highlands Coalition:
“The Highlands provide pristine, source water to every major river system in northern New Jersey and 70% of the State’s households depend on Highlands water. We should do everything possible to protect Highlands water for the benefit of future generations. Therefore, we fully support the Department in adopting better protections for these waterways because clean water is so essential to our future. And we should point out that the upgrades are far from arbitrary—these streams qualified for the higher level of protection based on federal water quality standards and hard data collected in the stream.”
Central New Jersey/Mercer County — Michael Pisauro, Policy Director, The Watershed Institute
“The recent upgrades to approximately 600 miles of streams to Category One status recognizes that it is essential to protect healthy streams from pollution. The C1 designation puts in place protections from direct and indirect pollution. It is vital that we continue to upgrade waterways before pollution and development degrade them. It is easier to protect water quality than it is to try to restore impaired waters. This action by NJDEP couldn’t come at a more critical time when federal protections for the environment are being dismantled. We commend NJDEP for taking the right moves to enforce the state’s stronger protections of vital waterways.”
Central New Jersey/Upper Raritan — Bill Kibler, Policy Director, Raritan Headwaters Association
“We’ve been anxiously awaiting these updates to the Surface Water Quality Standards. They are most welcome. We appreciate the incredible effort the DEP staff put into this rulemaking. Abundant clean water is one of the most critical resources New Jersey has. Protecting this vital resource is an essential investment in our future. This update is a valuable step towards ensuring future generations inherit waterways with clean water and healthy habitats.”
NJDEP FAQ about Category One designations: https://www.nj.gov/dep/wms/bears/docs/FAQ-SWQSC1-Amendments-2020.pdf