A Tale of Two Rivers – Part One

Written by Judy Auer Shaw
Photos © Alison M. Jones
All aerial photos are courtesy of LightHawk.org

Dr. Shaw became a NWNL Advisor shortly after our first interview: Creating a Watershed Web, conducted at Rutgers’ 1st Sustainable Raritan River Initiative in 2009. Her books on NJ’s Raritan River and Ohio’s Cuyahoga have intrigued NWNL as both rivers have survived a legacy of abuse thanks to good stewardship. Thus, we asked Judy to examine her work on these two waterbodies and how it could spawn a third synergy. This 2-part blog provides a unique insight into what motivates our most exemplary watershed scientists. 

On April 29,  NWNL will post PART TWO of Dr Shaw’s analysis of these two rivers, which focuses on her second book: The Cuyahoga: Our Beloved Crooked River. Her summary will compare the stewardship models within Ohio’s Cuyahoga and NJ’s Raritan Rivers. 

Author Dr Judy Shaw enjoying NJ’s Raritan River.

Having written books on New Jersey’s Raritan River and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, it would seem I’ve learned much that may help us all better understand and value our rivers. NWNL asked me to compare these two rivers, how my books came to be, the difference between them and how I wrote them. What is the value in comparing these two rivers, both affected by two major waterbodies and with two different geographies? What has made them similar and what has made them different?

Writing these books has been a labor of deep love and one that perhaps creates more questions than answers. The two books differ in that they stem from different circumstances; but both responded to a visceral need to connect and to protect our precious natural resources. Here, then, is the story.

The Raritan River: Our Landscape Our Legacy

The Raritan River runs wholly within the state of New Jersey. Its care had no consequence when it came to battles over quality; unlike the Delaware River, which New Jersey shares with Pennsylvania and Delaware, or the Hudson River, which New Jersey  shares with New York. As there was no hue and cry over how the Raritan was managed, the state did what it did best. It virtually ignored the river and devoted its attention to places where politics made them hotbeds of hostility and where public battles raged between those who were concerned and those whose job was to manage environmental quality.

An old coal-fired power plant right on the Raritan River.

My attention to the Raritan River came in 2008 with my transfer, after 20 years with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton, to a position at my alma mater’s Edward J. Bloustein School (EJB) of Planning & Public Policy in New Brunswick. There I spent 8 years doing research and teaching studio courses. Early in my tenure at EJB, leaders of the Mushett Family Foundation asked me to ‘resolve’ the discord among the region’s environmental groups, leaders of the watershed’s 97 municipalities and the general public’s ennui about  the river and its impact on the region’s citizens. They wanted me to reconcile the disparate interests; ensure remediation of over 20 Superfund sites and thousands of brownfields; and bring those sites back into productive use.

What else could I say, but, “Sure, I can do that.” Never mind there were 12 organizations that “didn’t need anyone’s help;” or that the 97 municipalities and 7 government agencies had no visible interest in the problems of their neighbors. Many of the critical-waste management facilities or polluting (thus heavily regulated) industries were built at the edge of these towns. Impacts on adjacent communities were not their concern, and the outcome was not good at all. Properties in adjacent towns lost considerable value and the overall quality of life dipped to new lows.

The Raritan River Basin, beautiful in so many ways, was crippled by land-use decisions, such as those in Manville NJ, that involved intense development in floodplains and consequent financial devastation to unwitting homeowners who purchased homes that flooded virtually annually. New Jersey prides itself on its reputation as a ‘home rule’ state, yet it lacked any statewide system of controls. There were no deterrents to ill-conceived development. New more rigorous stormwater management rules applied only to ‘new development’—when the real crisis lay among the homes that were built many years ago.

As I stepped up, it struck me that this region of the state was incredibly charming. Most towns were over 200 years old, and the care of the downtowns and historic buildings created a sense of tranquility unknown in other places. Delighted to know this, I wanted to write about the region—to show others that New Jersey was not just an array of industries belching pollutants into the air along the New Jersey Turnpike. Rather, it is a bucolic, beautiful place. I wanted to highlight the glorious landscapes and celebrate those dedicating their lives to its restoration and long-term care.

When I casually mentioned my thought to an EJB administrator, she saw a wonderful opportunity to celebrate successful planning and development. She immediately arranged a lunch meeting with Marlie Wasserman, Executive Director of Rutgers University Press. As lunch ended, we had a deal on a book.

So began in earnest my deep dive into the region and the concerns that compelled political decisions and those of planning and zoning. Startled to see how little attention was given to future impacts of those decisions, I was determined to make a difference.

The challenges facing the Raritan involved much of its history. This river begins in the beautiful wild regions of northern New Jersey where the South Branch and the North Branch join. From there, it wends its way south to Raritan Bay. The Upper Raritan’s two branches flow through towns where many are determined to preserve the lands along the river. While state regulations forbid new development on the banks, existing development, much of it in floodplains, had no protection from the state. There were many outlets from the streets and many businesses that discharged wastewater directly into the river. That discharge was carried downstream without any damage to the discharging community.

The confluence of North Branch (with its bridge) and South Branch (on right) create the main stem of the Raritan River.

 Dams built in the early years still stood some 150 years later creating barriers to fish passage. They retained sediments that flowed freely into the watershed’s rivers from streets and storm sewers. These also created perennial flooding problems. Combined sewers of the 1950s and 1960s brought sewage into the river when the storms overwhelmed management systems. Erosion ate at the banks; and farmers were not inspired to reallocate their cropland to woodlands that could act as buffers retaining the soil along the river’s course.

These issues were collectively overwhelming; and local engineers had no tools with which to combat these hazardous conditions. Without a deeper understanding of either the issues or the solutions, political leaders were stymied.  They covered their lack of action with bluster and grand declarations of their devotion to the quality of the river quality and its benefits to their towns. Fortunately, Rutgers University was held in high esteem by all, and when “Dr. Shaw” expressed an interest in working with them—for free—they eagerly agreed to listen.

My status as an interested third party brought me into public and private conversations with municipal leaders, regional environmental leaders, concerned citizens and many others from business, law and environmental management. The network I was able to create extended across the region and engendered many conversations between the above parties that were long needed and yielded great benefit to all.

In 2009 Rutgers’ 1st Sustainable Raritan River Symposium gathered attendees from upstream, downstream and tributary basins to discuss the river as a whole.

One of the most significant successes was the Stony Brook-Millstone Flood Commission. This group represented some 11 municipalities along the path of these two tributaries to the Raritan River. Their monthly meetings in Manville were open to the public. On one occasion, there was a heated discussion about their efforts to reach the US Army Corps of Engineers [USACE]. They wanted funding to build a levee/retaining wall along the city’s waterfront to protect homes that were built in the floodplain. Of course, I listened with my whole face. The Commission’s president, querying the USACE representative, stopped the conversation.

“Dr. Shaw? Do you have a question?” I was taken slightly aback and quickly realized he’d seen my concern.

“Thank you, I do.” I turned to my left and focused my question on the USACE representative, “Joe, exactly how much work would such a levee require?” 

He nodded and quickly calculated on a corner of his agenda. “We’d need to excavate.”

I eagerly anticipated the rest of his answer, but he stalled. So, I asked, “And exactly how much would you need to excavate?”

He blushed. “About fifteen football stadiums worth.”

I nodded and returned my gaze to the Commission. “Mr. President, I believe my first question has been answered. I do have a second one, if I may?” The president looked across his colleagues for their approval and they all nodded, almost easily guessing where I was going. “Exactly how much pain and suffering do you intend to expose the citizens to in this effort? Wouldn’t it be easier to speak with NJDEP about their new Blue Acres program and simply buy out the homes? Wouldn’t it be easier to return that land to its intended purpose as a floodplain?”

A dead silence broke as murmurs went up and down the commission. The president sounded his gavel. His colleagues quieted and a few hands went up. The conversation quickly turned, as they collectively realized the folly of their so-called solution. Instead, they started asking about the new program NJDEP had launched to purchase properties in the floodplains. The citizens in the audience also raised their hands, as several of them owned properties that might be eligible. They all seemed to understand that the future would be fraught with anxiety for those whose homes could be in peril from a whole new direction. What if the owners didn’t want to sell? Where would they go? How much would they lose in this scenario?

The Blue Acres Program has helped Manville NJ buy out hundreds of homes in its floodplains so they can again serve to absorb increasingly high flood waters.

The weeks that followed this involved much outreach on my part to my colleagues both at NJDEP and in the private sector, especially to those professionally familiar with floodplain restoration and operation. In particular, Princeton Hydro had built its business around incorporating nature as the missing asset in land management decisions. Their work spoke legions about their effectiveness. The NJDEP program managers were prepared for the public response and quickly offered to meet with the mayors and potentially affected property owners.

In 2014, Manville successfully purchased and demolished over 150 Somerset County homes; and restored the floodplain to full capacity. Since then there have been a couple of serious storms causing major inundation of the floodplain—but little to no damage to any other housing in the community. This year, according  to Manville’s Mayor Richard Onderko, the program will consider purchasing another 70 floodplain properties, thanks to the Blue Acres Program. All in all, a problem well met and a solution that truly worked.

Overall, changes that came to the collective watershed benefited everyone. Municipal government officials and their township engineers now consider the implications for both themselves and neighboring communities in their decision-making. Local residents engage more actively in conservation and water quality efforts. Communities launched independent water quality testing and NJDEP’s Blue Acres Program solved the critical needs in towns across the region.

Raritan Headwaters’ local volunteers monitoring the Peapack Brook tributary to the Raritan.

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