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Group 2 Delaware River Watershed Initiative


New Jersey Highlands

The New Jersey Highlands Cluster comprises much of northwestern New Jersey and includes five major watersheds: Paulins Kill, Pequest River, Musconetcong River, Lopatcong Creek and Pohatcong Creek.

The Paulins Kill and Musconetcong River are among the largest tributaries in New Jersey that drain to the Delaware River; these and the cluster’s other sub-watersheds capture a mixture of conditions representative of the Delaware’s more pristine headwaters as well as the heavily altered downstream portions further south in the basin. The entire New Jersey Highlands covers 1,343 square miles of the nationally significant Appalachian Highlands. It is part of the larger, federally designated Highlands Region that stretches from Pennsylvania to Connecticut, which contains one of the largest concentrations of intact forest on the east coast.

The New Jersey Highlands region is a vital source of drinking water for millions of people in the state, and in 2004, New Jersey adopted the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act to systematically protect and improve the quality and availability of its waters. The New Jersey Highlands Cluster covers 690 square miles of this region, which represents the watersheds in New Jersey that drain into the Delaware River. The cluster is immediately south of the Poconos, with the Kittatinny Ridge as its northern boundary. Inhabited for more than 12,000 years, this region has been actively mined, logged and farmed for over 300 years, and cities and towns have grown alongside its rivers and lakes. Nevertheless, forests and wetlands cover more than half of the land in the New Jersey Highlands, and their preservation has been a focus of leading conservation organizations for several decades.

Drinking Water Source 5.4 million People
Total Area 690 Sq. Mi.
Protected Land 41% Protected

Major Threats

Unsewered and developed areas around Lake Hopatcong, Hackettstown, Bloomsbury, Washington, Belvidere and Phillipsburg have stormwater and wastewater problems due to impervious cover and failing septic systems. The Musconetcong River, Lopatcong Creek and Upper Paulins Kill have established Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL—a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a water body can receive and still meet water quality standards) regulatory limit for disease-causing bacteria, and TMDLs are needed for other pollutants.

Forest Fragmentation and Loss
Development is rapidly converting land.

Agricultural Run-off
Poor grazing and tillage practices as well as improper manure management are responsible for nutrient pollution, loss of topsoil and siltation of streams in multiple portions of these watersheds, which have TMDLs set for agricultural nutrients, total suspended solids and bacteria.

Dams impede the passage of fish, degrade stream habitat, disrupt natural stream flow, and store pollutants and sediments.

Suburban Non-point Source Pollution
Run-off from residential lawns, corporate campuses, golf courses and impervious surfaces carries high amounts of fertilizer and other contaminants into waterways.

Why it’s Important

The rivers, lakes, and trails of the New Jersey Highlands are among the most popular recreation spots in the state. Many rare species make their homes here. Significant open space and high-quality trout streams contribute to the expansive vistas and ample recreational opportunities in these watersheds.

The New Jersey Highlands also provide drinking water for 5.4 million people, the majority of whom live outside the region. Most Highlands residents draw their water from private and community wells, making groundwater quality just as important as surface water quality. Groundwater quality, while typically good in the areas, is vulnerable to contamination in shallow wells. Despite its relative health, development and agriculture are stressing the natural system. Increased volumes of stormwater flow off tilled lands and hard surfaces like roads and rooftops, carrying pollutants that cause water quality and aquatic life to decline.

Run-off from lawns, leaky septic systems, and illicit septic connections also send significant amounts of pollutants such as fecal matter into the streams. Deforestation worsens the problem. With fewer trees, especially along shorelines and in headwater areas, the ecosystem has less capacity to filter pollutants, absorb stormwater, and minimize floods. Wildlife loses habitat, and fish struggle in streams with warm water that is clouded with sediment. As remnants of early waterpower and supply systems, dams are also disrupting in-stream habitat. Just as connected habitat in forested corridors is important, the connectivity of upstream and downstream reaches in a river is essential for the survival of both mussels and migratory fish like American shad.

What We Can Do

 The New Jersey Highlands Cluster plan incorporates projects that involve pollution reduction, land conservation, stream restoration, dam removal, municipal easements, watershed planning, invasive species management, public outreach and monitoring. These projects will take place in four focus areas: the Upper Musconetcong, Lower Musconetcong, Lopatcong Creek and Upper Paulins Kill. The goals of this cluster are to:

  • Ensure no net loss of forest cover in the priority headwaters of the Upper Musconetcong, through land acquisition and conservation easements.
  • Improve water quality in the Upper and Lower Musconetcong and Upper Paulins Kill, through restoration techniques that reduce contamination from phosphorous and fecal coliforms to achieve compliance with the New Jersey Surface Water Quality Standards.
  • Maintain or improve 10 miles of trout habitat by ensuring low water temperatures and compatible land uses in the Lopatcong Creek.
  • Increase habitat connectivity and improve ecosystem function of the stream corridor and floodplain through targeted protection and restoration of priority places along the Upper Paulins Kill and Lower Musconetcong River.

Monitoring and Measurement

Cluster organizations will monitor all elements of the plan to analyze impacts at the project scale, within the focus areas and across the entire cluster. Monitoring stations will be established at an upstream and downstream location for each focus area, for a total of eight stations managed primarily by the Academy of Natural Sciences. An additional 17 monitoring stations will track individual projects. The Nature Conservancy will collect data on dissolved oxygen, acidity, temperature and turbidity, as well as on macro-invertebrates and mussel populations.


Timeline and Investment

As of January 2014, the estimated cost for the work described in this plan was $32 million through 2017: over $5.5 million for restoration, $25.5 million for land protection, and just under $1 million for outreach activities. Work began in 2014 with $1.8 million in grants from the William Penn Foundation with additional support available through competitive re-grant funds.