Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Passaic River Watershed

The Passaic River runs almost 80 miles (129 km) through northern New Jersey.

It starts by winding its way around the swamp lowlands in and around the Great Swamp taking in through tributaries much of the surface waters of northern portion of the state. In its lower portion, it moves through some of the most urbanized and industrialized areas of the state.

The Passaic River formed as a result of drainage from the massive proglacial lake that formed in Northern New Jersey at the end of the last ice age, approximately 13,000 years ago. Glacial Lake Passaic, as we call it now, had its center in the present lowland swamps of Morris County.

The lake rose as the river was blocked, but eventually broke through at the Millington Gorge and the Paterson Falls as the glacier retreated.

Much of the lower river suffered severe pollution during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of the development that grew on its banks - in many cases in order to use the river as a resource or as a garbage dump.

The river's health has improved in the past 30 years. Some of that comes from the enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act and other environmental legislation. Some improvement has come as a result of the decline of industry along the river.

The water quality is still poor. Sediment at the mouth of the river near Newark Bay still registers contamination by pollutants such as dioxin. Dioxin was produced at the Diamond Shamrock Chemical Plant in Newark as a waste product resulting from the production of the agent orange defoliation chemical used during the Vietnam War. The issue of responsibility for the cleanup of the dioxin contamination has been in the courts for decades without resolution.

The Passaic River flows close to my hometown, but even closer is the Peckman River which is one of the many small tributaries. The Peckman River originates in West Orange and flows northeasterly through Verona, Cedar Grove and Little Falls to its confluence with the Passaic River in the borough of Woodland Park (formerly West Paterson).

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) has issued notices banning commercial fishing and advising the general public that fish caught in the tidal Passaic River (from Dunedee Dam to the mouth at Newark Bay) should not be eaten. Still, I see people fishing along the banks - particularly for catfish.

You can access the the Passaic from a number of county parks. It is pretty much free of industrialization until it reaches the Summit/Chatham border. The upper portion before Summit is far more natural in appearance. I have seen canoeists and kayakers there.

When it enters Essex County, there are some natural marsh lands and wooded areas that make it more inaccessible and somewhat protected.

The more heavily populated areas of Passaic County come next with the lower portions of the river south of Paterson being much wider but more industrialized as it flows into Newark Bay.

The Passaic River is known for chronic flooding problems during heavy rainfall or snow-melt. The worst area is where the Pompton River joins the Passaic River in Wayne, New Jersey.

Unfortunately, building has long been allowed in this flood plain. A plan has been proposed for years to build a 20 mile river flood tunnel. The tunnel would divert flood waters directly into the bay. Some riverside residents have already taken buy-outs from the federal government but many people still live within the flood plain.

The Passaic River Coalition (PRC) gives valuable assistance and stewardship for the preservation and protection of over 1,000 miles of waterways including the Passaic River. It was established in 1969.

Their goals include improvements in land-water resource management, and public health issues by working as an advisor to citizens, other environmental organizations, governments, and businesses. They gather scientific data to be used for creating wise management policies. They create maps and graphic displays that illustrate the physical, demographic, and socioeconomic characteristics of the River and its watershed for reports, open space plans, and natural resource inventories.

Their scope goes beyond the Passaic River's banks and into the larger watershed. They have met a Land Trust goal of obtaining 1000 acres by acquiring 34 properties in 6 counties (Passaic, Morris, Bergen, Essex, Sussex, and Somerset).

Protecting the watershed means protecting drinking water, preserving sensitive wildlife habitat, improving water quality, creating new open space, and promoting natural flood control management.

The PRC has been involved in the creation of new surface supply systems such as the Monksville Reservoir and the development of three Water Supply Master Plans for New Jersey. PRC has assisted in plans to restore Greenwood Lake, a primary water source for northern New Jersey and is creating the overall restoration guide for the Lake.

The next challenge is to address the 46 million gallon per day groundwater deficit in the NJ Highlands. You can join the PRC and donate to their fight.

A Great Conveniency - A Maritime History of the Passaic River,
Hackensack River, and Newark Bay


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