Raritan River Basin

A Tale of Two Rivers
By Geoffrey M. Connor

Those of us who live within the readership of the New Jersey Hills Media Group newspapers live in a beautiful area defined by the headwaters of the Raritan and Passaic Rivers.

As water – and whatever is in it – flows downhill, it’s not too surprising that the headwaters of these rivers are leafy and bucolic with much farmland and many open fields filled with wildflowers, while the downstream areas are considerably less attractive and the water less drinkable.

The pristine nature of the upper Raritan and Passaic Rivers comes not entirely by chance. Both watersheds have many active groups intent on protecting the water supply of two million New Jerseyans. There are federal and state environmental protection agencies, including the Highlands Commission, which do a good job, joined by municipal environmental commissions. National environmental nonprofits such as the Audubon Society, which has a New Jersey chapter, and the Natural Resources Defense Council are important. The National Wildlife Refuge in the Great Swamp is an essential resource. State and county parks and private hunting and fishing clubs make a real contribution, as do private landowners who have put vast acreage into preservation. And all of us who live in our area can do our part by supporting nonprofit organizations such as the Raritan Headwaters Association (RHA), the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, the Willowwood Foundation and the Tewksbury and Harding Land Trusts, among others. Each of these organizations relies on volunteers for important tasks, such as the annual cleanup of the Raritan spearheaded by the RHA.

Have you ever thought when you read about the water disaster problems in Flint, Michigan, that we have similar problems in New Jersey? The noted environmentalist Alison Jones, formerly of the Mountainville section of Tewksbury Township, pointed this out at a recent lecture before the Tewksbury Township Environmental Commission. Alison is the Director of “No Water No Life.” Dividing the upper Raritan from the lower Raritan at Somerville and the upper Passaic from the lower Passaic at Paterson, she contrasted the differences between the upper and the lower river watersheds. That contrast is stark.

Industrialization begins south of Somerville and at Paterson. In the past, the choice was between jobs and a clean environment. Most were forced to choose jobs and great prosperity was the result, but at a cost. Now many, if not most, of those factories which employed countless New Jersey workers are closed and the related jobs are gone, but the environmental problems created by the industry which employed them remain. People north of Somerville and west of Paterson, such as those of you who are reading this article, may not think too much about where their clean water flows to. But just get in a car and look. Thousands of New Jerseyans live along the polluted lower Raritan and Passaic Rivers and no longer benefit from the manufacturing jobs once produced. But they are forced to live with the garbage, industrial waste and shuttered factories left behind.

Now that much industry is gone, couldn’t Raritan Bay be made beautiful once again? The Jersey Shore starts at Sandy Hook on Raritan Bay. Perth Amboy could have a scenic waterfront filled with boating and fishing. Raritan Bay could be an abundant source of oysters and fish as it once was. The same could be true of the lower Passaic around Harrison and Newark. Other wetlands and inland bays along the Atlantic Coast are beautiful, and ours could be too. If only the lower Raritan and Passaic River Valleys had governmental entities and citizens dedicated to preservation such as the upper watersheds of these same rivers have. Would it cost more than the war in Iraq or a wall along Mexico to clean up these areas? Can’t we afford that? Can’t we afford to make our whole state, not just parts of it, a place where you might want to raise a family? And doing so would produce many jobs.

Yes, we do have our Flint, Michigans of undrinkable river water, but we don’t have to if we can only muster the collective will to make a change.


The writer, a Tewksbury resident, was state Commissioner of Banking from 1990 to 1994 under Democratic Gov. Jim Florio. He is a graduate of Pingry School, Williams College and Harvard Law School. From 2003 to 2007, he was North Hunterdon Joint Municipal Court judge. He is now a retired lawyer and a Trustee of Bloomfield College and The Provident Bank Foundation.

This article first appeared in The Bernardsville News, June 24, 2016. — Posted by NWNL on July 26, 2016.