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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

Land conversion contributes to the loss of farms and forests in the headwaters. The state’s Highlands Regional Master Plan seeks to control land conversion to protect water quality, but attempts to weaken the plan, along with residential and commercial pressure, threaten open spaces. Owners of working lands need assistance in managing nutrients and stormwater runoff. Municipal ordinances for zoning, growth, stormwater, and septic management allow practices incompatible with water quality.


Why it’s Important

The rivers, lakes, and trails of the New Jersey Highlands are among the most popular recreation spots in the region. 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 6.2 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.

Our Approach

The groups are protecting farms and forests and restoring degraded streams. Incentives in the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act (which encourages certain zoning policies and 300-foot-wide stream buffers) will create additional opportunities for protection and restoration. The groups plan a regional conference to showcase projects, explore new concepts, and promote a watershed ethic compatible with development.

Accomplishments to date: The partners have initiated projects that will protect 2,600 acres of land. They have restored 930 acres and monitored 26 sites for water quality. They developed tools to calculate the costs of floodplain development, track microbial pollutants, and provide guidance on easements and stewardship to help conservation organizations and municipalities. The groups also nurtured partnerships with public and nonprofit agencies that they will leverage in the coming years.

Projected outcomes: The conservation groups expect to permanently protect 2,600 acres of forested land and 12 miles of forested stream buffers. They will restore or enhance another 3,800 acres, restore 4.5 miles of forested riparian buffers, restore 8.2 miles of stream hydrology, and treat 5.5 acres with green stormwater infrastructure. The partners plan to help 13 municipalities conform to the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act requirements and will work with several others to improve their codes and ordinances relating to stormwater and land protection.

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.


The partners have identified $17 million in state, county, local, and private matching funds for protection, restoration, and other initiatives to augment support from the William Penn Foundation; the match will be 12:1.


Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, Hunterdon Land Trust, Musconetcong Watershed Association, New Jersey Audubon, New Jersey Conservation Foundation, New Jersey Highlands Coalition, North Jersey Resource Conservation & Development, Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority–Wallkill River Watershed Management Group, The Land Conservancy of New Jersey, The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, Trout Unlimited.

Highlands Water Champions

Meet the Local People Making a Difference for Clean Water in Your Community

Clean abundant water has a profound effect on our health, where we work, where we play, or where we live. As members of a regional community, we must care for the landscape to ensure an abundant supply of clean water is available for all.  Additionally, our actions that affect the landscape not only impact our quality of life, but that of our families, friends and neighbors, local wildlife, and of course future generations.

Ordinary people can make extraordinary differences in their communities.  Having a positive impact on the landscape in your everyday life does not have to be complex, or costly. What matters is that you are committed to making the right choices and realize that there is assistance to help you!  All it takes is that first step to make an effort.

The conservation partners of the NJ Highlands Cluster have developed a video series that features real people making real differences. Each video highlights a different aspect of our communities—regular people doing extraordinary things—presented in a way that is informative, instructional, and most of all inspirational!

Like ripples across a pond, the positive impact that these local people have on us can inspire new ideas and actions to care for what many of us have taken for granted—the lifeblood of the region—clean abundant water.

Watch the videos below and remember to check back for additional stories. Please contact us if you know someone who has an exciting story to tell. Who knows, your story may be here one day to inspire others!

Stormwater Hero: Brenda Delgrosso

River-Friendly Farming Hero: Riverine Ranch