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Creating a Watershed Web
The 1st Annual Sustainable Raritan River Symposium
New Brunswick NJ, June 2009
Dr. Judith Auer Shaw: Director, Sustainable Raritan River Initiative
Water Policy Coordinator, E.J. Bloustein School of Planning & Public Policy, Rutgers University
Alison Jones: NWNL Founding Director
Peter Berman: Videographer
Julie Eckhert: Video Editor
Explanatory Note on The Sustainable Raritan River Initiative:
The focus of Judy Shaw’s years at Rutgers University working on the Raritan River was to foster support for this joint program of Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and the School of Environmental and Biological Science. The Sustainable Raritan River Initiative works with various stakeholders in the Raritan Basin to balance their social, economic and environmental objectives. The goal is to restore the Raritan River, its tributaries and its Bay for current and future generations. The Initiative also partners with the Sustainable Raritan River Collaborative, a network of over 130 organizations, governmental entities and businesses in the Raritan region.
The Potential of the Raritan for its Residents
NWNL: Hello, Judy. Today you are chairing the First Annual Sustainable Raritan River Symposium. From that perspective, what potential do you envision for the Raritan River and its community?
JUDY SHAW: This river has the potential to be a major recreation area and the potential for a huge rebirth in marine fisheries. The Raritan creates incredible habitats that will attract people to this region. The overall need is for people to be attracted to this area.
090808_NJ_1461People from many various communities enjoy the Raritan River.
The Raritan is not something that smells or something that looks terrible. It should be something that makes people say, “I want to be on this river.”
It matters that we can see the Raritan River if we’re to be connected with it. So many of the issues raised by those who spoke today at this first Raritan River Symposium emphasized that there isn’t enough access to the river. Even our new Boyd Park [in New Brunswick on the banks of the Raritan] was criticized by someone who commented, “As I drove up the railing was just so high, I couldn’t see the river.”
090515_NJ_4522Urban space at Boyd Park, New Brunswick, NJ
If people really want a sustainable future, the economic benefits of having a beautiful place far outweigh the economics of a place that’s unattractive. That’s what’s really at the heart of this.
NWNL: How does a beautiful river help the economy?
JUDY SHAW: When you look at neighborhoods you want to live in, you have a choice. It’s very easy to choose the ideal house, where you have a yard, where you have a quiet street, where you have nice lighting –versus a place where you have wires across the street and housing that hasn’t been kept up. You want to live in the neighborhood that has the street with trees. You want to live in a nice neighborhood that looks like a safe neighborhood. It’s the same principle with a larger region like the Raritan River Basin.
Regionally, New Jersey competes with Pennsylvania, with New York. One questions how much New Jersey can compete. Studies show that real-estate values go up as much as 20% when you are adjacent to an open space area. Trees bring 12% additional value to property. Think what the Raritan River could bring to the region! That’s where I come from.
150726_NJ_3555A Verdant Raritan River – upstream and downstream
Ongoing Threats to the Health of the Raritan River
NWNL: Today you asked various panelists: “What do you think are the major threats to the river right now?”
JUDY SHAW: I think the biggest threat to the river is neglect. Beyond that, I think it’s that we are not talking to one another. Everyone has a tendency to say, “My boundary is here. I’ll take care of this. My job is this. I’ll take care of that.” I feel that until today no one has recognized that we really are in this together.
If we are going to fix the Raritan River once and for all, Edison, Woodbridge, Perth Amboy, Sayreville and New Brunswick have to know what’s going on in each other’s areas and coordinate with each other. Middlesex County, Somerset County and Union County must all look at the same question together. Simple things must be considered; from having their maps of the rivers be consistent on their websites, to having the floodplains mapped so anyone who wants this information can see the connections.
We hope to put together www.blueraritan.org as a central place that hooks back into each of these separate entities. Then, when someone says, “How does this fit together,” they will see very quickly this site is a place where they can connect the dots. [As of 2016, Blue Raritan has become The Sustainable Raritan Initiative,]
090807_NJ_0235Industrial and Landfill Contamination continue to be a challenge.
NWNL: What external threats to the river do you see besides neglect?
JUDY SHAW: There are contaminated sites that have yet to be developed. There are landfills that still have areas where the stream bank is eroding. There are properties all the way up and down the Raritan that are vulnerable to stream bank issues. There is a lack of maintenance.
Promoting Stewardship as a Solution
NWNL: Is increased stewardship a solution?
JUDY SHAW: We are thinking about involving students in this. Students have great potential. They are eager to do good work. They believe in the environment. We could marshal the resources of students to go out and adopt a park. They could go out and adopt a mile of the river where it’s their job to take a look at the river every weekend. We could have organized water-quality monitoring by students. Students could be certified to collect this data.
110521_NJ_8942Student involvement is a great key to a clean Raritan.
Schools can be working together as teams. Imagine a High School Congress of the 100 towns in this region, all sending sophomores and juniors and seniors to sit down together and say we’re going to figure out what the strategy is. They can do it.
NWNL: Are you optimistic that this river will be cleaned up?
JUDY SHAW: Absolutely, absolutely. I believe that people really want to do the right thing. All’s that’s missing is someone who says, “I have the time to see to it that we work together.” The secret is working together. So, that’s where my optimism lies.
I haven’t met anyone who will say, “Oh, I really don’t care about the river.” Everyone cares about it. Everyone is trying to do what they can. We can encourage, promote and praise the people who do it right as stewardship models.
We’ve seen neighborhoods come back because one person planted a rose bush. It got pulled out and they planted it again. It got torn up again and they planted it again. This woman planted 150 rose bushes before somebody finally left it alone. Now the whole neighborhood has rose bushes because everybody really wanted to do the right thing. If she had caved in and said, “Okay, I got vandalized again, so I’m not going to do it,” it would have been all over. She stayed the course.
070717_NJ_8137Changing a polluted river to a clean river is great inspiration.
NWNL: What lifestyle changes have to happen to make this river an appreciated resource?
JUDY SHAW: I think people have to get out of their houses. I think they have to remember that there is joy in being with nature. I think people need to learn more about birds; they need to learn about trees; they need nature education. They need to know that nature matters and that it’s important.
There was a game that I used to play with my students called “The Web of Life.” We took a ball of yarn and passed it from one student to the next telling how we were connected to the other person. Eventually the web was vey thick. We are connected to everything in our environment.
The challenge simply is to get people to recognize that the reason that they are connected to a bush and a rock and a rabbit and fish and a frog and a human and the sun and the minerals. We really all do fit together in a web. That is really what matters. If we neglect nature, it will fall apart.
070804_NJ_7854Biodiversity of the Raritan River Basin.
It’s important to keep teaching environmental education, getting people out for nature education and summer day camps. Recreation programs in the community are among the first things to be cut when municipal budgets get cut. This is counter-intuitive. We all need places to love.
There are kids that don’t know that there’s a river in their neighborhood. What’s that about? We need to give the kids opportunities so they can learn what to do to help. We need to prioritize education for our children so that they can become stewards.
NWNL: Many children answer that the source of their water is “the the faucet.” How do you teach them where water actually comes from and what happens to it after it goes down the drain? There are even adults in my neighborhood who don’t think beyond the tap or the drain.
JUDY SHAW: I hear you. In my own community I offered my friends alternatives to fancy, expensive cleaning products. I shared alternatives with some church groups. The environmental commission supported our teaching each other.
Community organizations must recognize that approaches like this can be fun and can build community. People have to learn to ask what is needed, who can give us what is needed, and how we can help people learn in a positive way to change their behaviors.
Students need the freedom to do some of these community things; to experiment and foster more creative solutions. In my most pessimistic moments, I think we encourage people to only respond to the multiple-choice answers as presented, to only look at the question as needing the correct answer. We’ve cut programs where kids were encouraged to be creative and systems where creativity was only as limited as what one could imagine.
The answer is to teach parents, teachers and kids. Every community has the capacity to do it. I think our communities really can pull that together.
090425_NJ_0616The Raritan Headwaters is one of many active Raritan stewards.
[Posted by NWNL on September 20, 2016. Transcription edited for clarity by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director. Our Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.]
All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.