Tag: Lower Raritan Watershed

Be Prepared: March is Flood Safety Month

Although abundant snow fell in New Jersey’s Lower Raritan Watershed in January and February, March is still the wettest month. Good preparation and knowing what to do in a flood will increase your safety and chances of survival if it happens in your area. It can also help minimize potential flood damage and accelerate recovery efforts.

Flood Preparedness: Before, During, After a Flood

  1. Turn around, don’t drown!

As little as six inches of moving water can sweep an adult off their feet, and just 12 inches of it can carry a small car. A foot of swiftly moving water can also carry away an SUV or truck. Even if you think you know how deep a particular part of the road is, it is better to avoid driving or walking through it altogether. It’s not just the depth alone, either — there’s also the potential for hazardous debris or downed active power lines in or nearby the water. Especially at night after a significant rainfall or flooding event when your vision is not as strong, play it safe and find an alternate route until the water recedes.

2. Sign up for local news and community alerts

The Weather Channel provides free forecasts, radar, and severe weather alerts on their desktop site. The Emergency Email & Wireless Network and Weather Underground offer free email subscriptions of weather and other alerts. By signing up for push alerts to your cellphone, home phone, or email, you can get up-to-the-minute information about flooding. NOAA Radio also broadcasts weather alerts around the nation, and local meteorologists send out alerts when heavy rains or coastal flooding is possible.

3. Know the risks where you live

Ask neighbors about flooding risks. Visit your local library to find hyper-local topographical maps of your community, or use the USGS TopoView Viewer tool to get an idea of where nearby water bodies are so you can estimate your chance of being directly affected by flooding. Check your flood insurance policy to ensure appropriate coverage. The LRWP relies on the USGS flood gauge at Bound Brook to give us a sense for local conditions.

You can also take a page from the LRWP’s book of landscape decoding and #lookfortheriver by observing water flows, tracing land contours, and re-discover our buried streams using historic maps.

4. Prepare a “go kit” for flood season and other emergencies

Do you have an evacuation plan in place for your family and pets in cases of fire or other threats? Does it include a “go kit”? A “go kit” is a great way to always stay prepared. Some items you can keep in this waterproof kit are:

  • Non-perishable food
  • Water bottles
  • Sleeping bag and blankets for each person
  • A full change of clothes for each person, and an extra set of masks
  • Important documents sealed in a waterproof case
  • Cash or traveler’s checks
  • Pet food
  • Baby formula
  • A 30-day supply of any necessary medications

You can find a full list of items that are good to have at the ready year-round here.

The actions listed above are just some of many actions each of us can take to prevent loss of lives, jobs and homes in the face of flooding. We also must start “thinking regionally” about preparedness, which will help us all be more resilient in a climate uncertain future.

COVID-19 showed what can happen when our states and nation is under-prepared for a pandemic. The recent storms in Texas give us insights into how we can prepare for future weather related crises. Regions that are not prepared for climate change will suffer lost lives, jobs, and homes. This is especially a concern for coastal communities, including many in our Lower Raritan Watershed.

For example, we do not yet have a true flood risk assessment for the Lower Raritan. FEMA flood maps are incomplete, and often inaccurate. And many homes in Lower Raritan communities like South River, Sayreville and Woodbridge are excluded from flood plains for political reasons. Not surprisingly, the maps and processes that communicate risks associated with flooding are often highly politicized. The risk maps often reflect the politics of property developers in flood plains, pressures to keep property values high, and fears of the overwhelming cost of adapting at-risk homes to rising seas and flooding, more than the actual risk.

As part of #ResilientNJ, the LRWP and regional partners are working to conduct an accurate regional risk assessment to understand the magnitude of flood risks and threats for our area. From there we aim to make plans to protect lives, homes and employment that may be vulnerable to flooding, and likewise seek to identify ways to adapt to and mitigate climate change impacts. In coming months the LRWP and County and municipal partners will launch a website, outreach campaign, app and more to engage the larger Middlesex/Lower Raritan community in regional resilience planning. We look forward to working with you!

Weston Mill Dam Removal

Article and photos by John W. Jengo

The Weston Mill Dam and the former Weston Mill gristmill and sawmill site are located approximately 1.5 miles upstream of the Millstone River’s confluence with the Raritan River, and immediately downstream of the Weston Causeway (Wilhousky Street) Bridge in the Borough of Manville and the Township of Franklin, Somerset County, New Jersey. The dam crest length was approximately 112.5 feet long and there was a concrete approach apron that ranged in thickness from 5 to 6.75-inches that extended 17.5 to 18.5 feet upriver of the dam spillway. The location of the mill was depicted on early Colonial-era and Revolutionary War military field maps, and the mill and dam were picturesque landmarks that were often photographed by local residents, including images included in the book Franklin Township [NJ] – Images of America, published in 1997.

Through an intensive deed search, I determined that a gristmill and dam were established on the east bank of the Millstone River at the project area circa 1747, most probably built by Abraham Brokaw, and the mill was subsequently involved in a Revolutionary “Forage War” skirmish between British and American forces on January 20, 1777 while under the ownership of Abraham Van Nest.  Recovery of two cornerstones during 1983 salvage operations suggest major mill building and rebuilding efforts occurred in 1803 and 1844 by John M. Bayard and Isaac R. Cornell, respectively.  Though the mill remained active at this site into the early twentieth century (it was the most productive mill in the Millstone River/Stony Brook drainage), under various private owners and incorporations (Weston Mill Company, Inc.; Community Flour Mill and Grain Company; Union Mills Company, Inc.), and the dam underwent significant structural repairs between circa 1922 and circa 1948 by its last owner (Wilbur Smith), it ultimately fell into disuse and disrepair. On May 31, 1982, the mill building partially collapsed into the Millstone River. Mill artifact salvage operations were initiated on June 25, 1983 but were abandoned when arson claimed the collapsed structure on July 7, 1983.

When I first began assessing this dam in 2009 as a candidate for removal, the Weston Mill site included the brownstone and concrete foundation remains of a gristmill that had enclosed a turbine room (formerly the water wheel pit) and a tailrace room, and there were associated powertrain components scattered throughout the site, including multiple bevel gears, possible mortise and pin gears, sprocket gears, drive shafts, counter shafts, flat belt pulleys, and other mill-related power-train apparatuses. A concrete coring project conducted in August 2015 at five representative locations on the dam approach apron (the same effort that determined the thickness of the apron) revealed two concrete approach aprons, which suggested that the dam was reinforced or rebuilt with concrete in two different periods in the early- to mid-twentieth century and that this run-of-the-river dam may have been built on top of a timber crib dam of unknown age.

Routine visits to the dam site over the next eight years would indicate that beginning in 2015, the eastern 78 feet of the dam crest (i.e., the top of the spillway) and spillway began to noticeably subside and detach from the concrete approach apron, placing undue stress on the riverward mill foundation wall to the east.  By mid-2017, the collapsing dam crest and spillway had subsided almost to the level of the downstream pool elevation, had deflected outward some five feet downriver, and in doing so, the flow of the river was redirected toward the mill ruins on the east bank, potentially causing adverse effects to the mill foundation and complicating the dam removal.

The dam removal and the engineering plans were re-designed to include emplacing scour protection around the Weston Mill foundation walls to arrest the damage to the ruins and preserve the remaining fabric of the site for future study.  The first step in the dam removal process, which commenced on August 14, 2017, was to initially breach a portion of the dam to reduce the differential head between the upstream and downstream pools. The initial breach width of 35 feet, located near the center point of the dam, produced the desired upstream pool drawdown and a relatively low current velocity through the breach. Once the upstream impoundment had drained, the contact between the concrete approach apron and the riverward mill foundation wall was accessible to be saw cut to isolate the apron from the mill wall prior to further demolition. This was done to ensure that neither the weight of the demolition excavator or the vibration of the hydraulic hammer would destabilize the riverward foundation wall.

After the saw cut was completed, the concrete approach apron, an underlying concrete sub-apron, and dam spillway were carefully detached and removed.  Imported rip rap was then emplaced around the mill foundation walls. My experience working on the rivers of this watershed indicated that natural sedimentation from storm events would eventually blanket and in-fill the rip rap, enhancing the stability of the scour protection armament. Finally, a restored river channel thalweg were excavated and contoured appropriately.  It was during these excavations that segments of a timber crib dam, secured to the river bed by using 17.5-inch to 20.5-inch long, 1.125-inch square iron spikes, were extracted that clearly indicated that the pre-concrete dam structure was a timber crib construction.  Three primary types of roughly square timbers believed to be part of the timber crib dam were identified: 13-foot long lap jointed foundation logs with iron spikes, 9.25- to 9.75-foot timbers with two mortise joints (some with intact dowels), and 3.8-foot timbers with tenons at one end.  Several timbers of this historical structure were saved and donated to the Borough of Manville, Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, and NJDEP, who had purchased the dam site in 2013 from a private owner, an acquisition that allowed the dam removal to proceed.

Monitoring of the river reach above the former Weston Mill Dam in spring 2018 following the August 2017 dam removal found definitive evidence of successful American shad spawning, an astonishing and long-awaited result given this river reach had effectively been blocked to migratory fish for over 270 years.  Five juvenile shad averaging 4.3 inches in length were found 4.5 miles upstream of the dam at the base of Blackwells Mills Dam during a monitoring visit, highlighting yet again the dam removals can yield near-instantaneous positive results even after centuries of impeding fish migration and spawning.

Video of the Weston Mill Dam removal can be viewed here:

Endnote: Because of the archaeological discoveries made before and during the dam removal, and the rich cultural history of Weston Mill, a standalone video on the History of Weston Mill was developed and can be viewed here:

John W. Jengo, PG, LSRP is a licensed Professional Geologist in several Northeastern and Southeastern states and a Licensed Site Remediation Professional in New Jersey. John works as a Principal Hydrogeologist in an environmental consulting firm in southeastern Pennsylvania. He has degrees in geology from Rutgers University (1980) and the University of Delaware (1982). Over the last 30 years, he has conducted the characterization and remediation of large, complex contaminated industrial sites throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. He played a key role in Natural Resource Damage (NRD) assessments that led to groundbreaking legal settlements to remove numerous low head dams on the Raritan and Millstone Rivers to restore historically significant migratory fish spawning runs. As technical project manager, he planned, permitted, and successfully managed the removal of the Calco Dam, the Robert Street Dam, and the Nevius Street Dam between 2008-2013, and the removal of the Weston Mill Dam on the Millstone River in 2017, along with leading the archaeological investigation of the former Weston Mill in the Borough of Manville and Franklin Township.

Removing the Calco Dam

Article and photos by John W. Jengo

Calco Dam, positioned at Raritan River Mile (RM) 20.9, was located in Bridgewater and Franklin Townships, Somerset County, New Jersey just upriver from the Borough of Bound Brook.  Calco Dam, technically a low-head loss dispersant weir, was constructed in 1938 by the Calco Chemical Company, Inc. as part of the effluent conveyance system for a synthetic dyestuff manufacturing operation that had been established at this location in 1915.  To direct effluent flow to Calco Dam, a diversion structure was built on a natural stream (Cuckels Brook) 800 feet north of the dam, and as part of the diversion construction, a canal was dug from that structure to Calco Dam; a screening structure was installed at the end of the canal to prevent debris from flowing into the dispersant pipe inside the dam.  The center dispersant weir section of Calco Dam was 123 feet long and was composed of a 36-inch-diameter effluent tile pipe encased in concrete, which had on its downstream side a total of 41 8-inch-diameter outlets spaced three feet apart.  The weir structure was connected to the river banks by approximately 50- to 55-foot-long solid concrete abutments, making Calco Dam a run-of-the-river structure.  According to the original design drawings, Calco Dam varied in width between 21.25-23 feet and it had a structural height of approximately seven feet.  There was an 18-inch-thick, 12-foot-wide concrete apron extending downstream from the dam crest, ending in an apron toe section extending 3 feet below the river bed.

Calco Dam Before Removal

When the Somerset Raritan Valley Sewerage Authority (SRVSA) purchased the manufacturing site’s wastewater treatment plant operations in 1985, ownership of Calco Dam also transferred to SRVSA because the dam was an integral part of the facility wastewater effluent discharge system.  Although SRVSA was utilizing Calco Dam for discharging treated municipal effluent into the Raritan River when I approached them in 2008 about removing the dam, they were already in the process of designing and permitting an alternative effluent discharge route and outfall to the Raritan River, which would allow Calco Dam to be abandoned and removed.  SRVSA immediately recognized the value of eliminating the potential liability of a dam and they became the model of a cooperative dam owner in the subsequent contractual negotiations to grant us permission to remove Calco Dam.

The Calco Dam removal was successfully accomplished between July 18 and August 1, 2011, but the removal had an unique engineering component.  In planning the dam removal, I ascertained that the southernmost end of the dam had been incorporated into and under the towpath berm of the historic Delaware and Raritan (D&R) Canal, although a fair portion of this dam section had been subsequently exposed by scour eddies caused by water flowing over the dam.  The effect of any further excavation on the stability of the D&R Canal towpath berm was considered too risky to implement so a decision was to made to leave that southernmost section of the dam intact and rebury the section that had become exposed from the river’s scouring action. To isolate this dam section from the remainder of the structure that was to be removed required that a methodology be devised to cut through the entire dam structure with a minimal amount of disturbance to the towpath berm (the dam was much too thick to be saw cut).  Taking advantage of the same scour pool that had dangerously eroded into the base of the towpath berm, we built a temporary coffer dam around this section of the dam, dewatered it, and proceeded to drill and extract dozens of overlapping 6.5-inch diameter concrete cores across the width of the dam in the process known as “stitch coring.”  Once the isolation of this section of the dam was completed, we imported tons of properly-sized rock riprap and rebuilt the base of the D&R Canal towpath berm back into its original configuration with the southernmost dam fragment now serving as a stable foundation for the reconstruction.  Success of this restoration was tested just a few weeks later during back-to-back record flooding events from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee when this section of the repaired D&R Canal towpath berm held firm while other sections along the D&R Canal route suffered washouts and breaches.

Calco Dam During Initial Breaching
Calco Dam During Final Breaching
Calco Dam Stitch Coring

The number of returning migratory fish in the Raritan River the following spring heralded the remarkable and rapid recovery of the Raritan River at the Calco Dam location.   Based on observations at the upstream Island Farm Weir (IFW) fish ladder viewing window in the first spring migration season (March-May 2012) following the dam removal, the number of American shad migrating upstream increased 500% and the total number of fish passing through the IFW fish ladder increased by 200%.   This essentially instantaneous result propelled the planning of the next two dam removals, which were accomplished in just the next two years (Robert Street Dam in 2012 and the Nevius Street Dam in 2013), and this succession of three dam removals in just three years is considered to be one of the most ambitious river restoration efforts that have implemented to date.

Calco Dam After Removal

John W. Jengo, PG, LSRP is a licensed Professional Geologist in several Northeastern and Southeastern states and a Licensed Site Remediation Professional in New Jersey. John works as a Principal Hydrogeologist in an environmental consulting firm in southeastern Pennsylvania. He has degrees in geology from Rutgers University (1980) and the University of Delaware (1982). Over the last 30 years, he has conducted the characterization and remediation of large, complex contaminated industrial sites throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. He played a key role in Natural Resource Damage (NRD) assessments that led to groundbreaking legal settlements to remove numerous low head dams on the Raritan and Millstone Rivers to restore historically significant migratory fish spawning runs. As technical project manager, he planned, permitted, and successfully managed the removal of the Calco Dam, the Robert Street Dam, and the Nevius Street Dam between 2008-2013, and the removal of the Weston Mill Dam on the Millstone River in 2017, along with leading the archaeological investigation of the former Weston Mill in the Borough of Manville and Franklin Township.

World Vegan Day in the Lower Raritan: The Greener Grass on the Other Side

Article by Angely Melendez, written as part of the Rutgers Spring Semester 2020 Environmental Communications course

November 1, 2020 is World Vegan Day. Want to celebrate? See below for a listing of the many vegan and vegetarian restaurants in the Lower Raritan Watershed to choose from!

Plant Based Restaurants in the Lower Raritan Watershed

WatchungMexico Grillhttps://www.mexicogrillnj.com/
New BrunswickVeganizedhttp://veganizedfoods.com/
South AmboyHibachi Expresshttps://www.hibachiexpressandsushi.com/
East BrunswickSweetberryhttps://www.sweetberrybowls.com/eastbrunswick
UnionKiller Veganhttps://killervegan.com/
MatawanVegan Treehttps://www.vegantreematawan.com/
Old BridgeThai Thai Cuisinehttp://thaithaistirling.com/
MonroePersis Indian Grillhttp://persismonroe.com/menu/
MarlboroOver Easy Kitchenhttps://www.overeasykitchen.com/
MillstoneThe Chozhashttps://thechozhas.com/

Reasons to go Vegan or Vegetarian

Ask someone just 20 years ago if they’d go vegetarian or vegan and they’d say no, you’re crazy. Meat has always been a staple within American cuisine and continues to be so, but even in the last 3 years there has been a 600% increase in Americans who consider themselves vegan. A staggering percentage, to say the least, but although those numbers are great, that’s still only 6% of American consumers in 2017 (“Veganism is at an All-Time High: Is it A Fleeting Fad or The New Norm?” 2018).

For the meat eaters out there that are still unsure of what the excitement is all about, I want to introduce World Vegan Day. This day visits us every November 1, and introduces the idea of the ever so popular diets: vegetarianism and veganism. Maybe the possibility of seeing what the hub-bub is all about intrigues you, and if that’s the case, then this is the day for you. See the map above for a route around the Lower Raritan River with stops all along it at plant based restaurants or others that feature plant based options.

So, what can these diets offer you? A slew of things, actually. One of the big factors to go plant-based is due to health. According to Harvard Medical School, a vegetarian diet offers some wonderful benefits and takes out some of the harmful negatives, “… As a result, [making them] likely to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases.”

Besides personal gains, you’d also be doing the Earth (and our Lower Raritan Watershed) a huge solid. A big sign of inefficiency within agriculture lies within the raising of animals for their meat. About 70% of grain and cereals grown in the U.S. are fed to farm animals. Keeping that in mind, 16lbs of grain goes into producing 1lb of meat. And since demand for meat is so high, these farms continue to expand, knocking down natural ecosystems for the production of corn. Instead of using all those resources and high amounts of energy to produce that little amount of consumable meat, it could instead be used for humans.

So, come out to the Lower Raritan River during World Vegan Day, check out what local vegan and vegetarian restaurants have on offer, and learn why the grass is greener on the other side!

Effective communication about the environment is critical to raising awareness and influencing the public’s response and concern about the environment. The course Environmental Communication (11:374:325), taught by Dr. Mary Nucci of the Department of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, focuses on improving student’s writing and speaking skills while introducing students to using communication as a tool for environmental change. Students not only spend time in class being exposed to content about environmental communication, but also meet with communicators from a range of local environmental organizations to understand the issues they face in communicating about the environment. In 2019 and 2020, the course applied their knowledge to creating blogs for their “client,” the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). Under the guidance of LRWP Founder, Dr. Heather Fenyk, students in the course researched topics about water quality and recreation along the Raritan. Throughout 2020 the LRWP will share student work on our website.

Aerial Tour of the Raritan Basin

One of many Raritan River-adjacent landfills/Superfund sites at-risk of flood impacts
Photo by Alison M. Jones, No Water No Life – taken during a LightHawk flight, April 2019

On Tuesday May 12, 5:30-6:30 pm join Heather Fenyk with the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, Alison M. Jones with No Water No Life, and Joe Mish (aka Winter Bear Rising) author of the LRWP series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” for a virtual tour of the Raritan Basin.

During this hour long tour Heather, Alison and Joe will share and discuss images taken during a LightHawk flight on April 2019. With many thanks to LightHawk, Inc. for the experience – we look forward to sharing some the experience with you.

This was a very special flight. We expect it to be a very special conversation.

Registration required.

Endangered Species of the Watershed Illustration Curriculum for grades 3-8

By Akansha Khurana

The Watershed Illustration Curriculum was developed to raise awareness about the endangered species of New Jersey, especially the flora and fauna of the Lower Raritan Watershed. Every species in the curriculum, from the Bald Eagle to the Closed Bottled Gentian, is in immediate danger due to human activities. These human activities are responsible for loss of species habitat due to habitat fragmentation and deforestation, over-exploitation of resources, disturbances, disease, introduction of invasive species, pollution and climate change. The survival of every species of wildlife is critical to preserving our state’s rich biodiversity and unique natural history. Unlike other natural threats, man-made threats are threats that we can prevent by changing our behavior.

These curriculum guides combine art and science to help students develop their creativity and artistic skills, while advancing their knowledge of the endangered species and plants that are in close proximity to them. By focusing on art, we also try to make the connection to the environment a personal experience. To save wildlife requires positive action. It requires changes in lifestyle and way of thinking.










As humans, we have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions, both present and past. We are capable of learning more about the effects our actions have on the world around us and how changes in those actions could help to alter future events. By examining how human activities have adversely impacted life on earth, we can take steps to reverse past damages and prevent future damage.

Thank you for learning about the special wildlife in the Lower Raritan, and how you can help protect them!

Your Health and COVID-19: Four Illness-Fighting Benefits of Getting Outdoors

“I have two doctors, my left leg and my right.”  -G.M. Trevelyan

The silver lining in COVID-19-related time off from work and school? More hours to get outside.

Time out-of-doors yields illness-fighting benefits (a few are listed below). Check out the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership’s map of open space in the Lower Raritan or find a park map for your area, lace up your shoes, and head outdoors. Getting outside may be just what the doctor ordered.

1. Breathe fresh air. Although the viruses that cause flu and colds are more common in the winter months, the circulated air in closed environments is the main cause of illness. Windows are closed, germs are recycled through air vents, and the general tendency in cooler months is to stay indoors. The thing is, the more time spent inside, the more you risk exposure. In fresh outdoor air the chance for spreading infection is reduced.

2. Strengthen the immune system. Time outside gives you an escape from indoor germs and bacteria. Increased time outside is associated with stronger autoimmune systems, and a resistance to allergies. Studies have shown that children in rural areas, or who are active outside, have the best overall health.

3. Engage in physical exercise. Time outside is associated with greater physical activity, and physical activity gives your immune system a power surge for a full 24 hours. A stronger immune system leads to less illness and less use of antibiotics.

4. Shift your perspective. Time outside can be a welcome break from the technology-focus of our 21st century lives. Get out for a wildlife hike and watch the birds and other critters – many of them are in full throttle nest building this time of the year. Taking a break out-of-doors, connecting with local ecology, is great for your mental health!

Open Space in the Lower Raritan Watershed

CANCELLED – Tour of Bayshore Recycling

Our friends at Bayshore Recycling are still recovering from the December 16 six-alarm fire that devastated parts of their plant. While their Recycling Class A paper, plastics and metal facility was not affected, they have asked that we reschedule our tour for later in the year.

We will include notice of reschedule in our newsletter.

This is your chance to follow the recycling journey with your own eyes, observing how what’s left at the end of your driveway is sorted, prepped and packaged to get it ready for the next phase of reuse. Gary Sondermeyer, VP of Operations at Bayshore Recycling, will explain it all with this behind-the-scenes tour.

This is a great opportunity to learn more about the importance of recycling, the convenience and drawbacks of single-stream recycling, and how it’s all done. You’ll also leave with some first-hand do’s and don’ts.

#LookForTheRiver, Jersey Water Works Opening Plenary Speech

On December 13, 2019 LRWP collaborator and coLAB Arts co-producer and Director of Education John Keller delivered the opening plenary to the 2019 Jersey Water Works annual statewide summit at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in New Brunswick, NJ. John talked about the intersection of art, and our work in the watershed. He gave lots of examples of our collaborative effort these past 5 years. With thanks to John for allowing the LRWP to share his words.

Good Morning Everyone,

Uh, oh. I have to be that first person who annoyingly chastises you for being lack luster in your morning greeting. Think of it this way. It is Friday! You are coming to have a great time at this symposium, learn lots of stuff, have some good conversations, have la meal and still be out by 2:30! And as long as you don’t have a boss who is a party pooper it’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to go back to the office for just a few measly afternoon hours so that means found time! Maybe you’ll stop by your favorite independent coffee shop and have a nice afternoon latte in your favorite reusable cup. Then go over to the local day-spa maybe get a message or a nice facial (as long as it doesn’t have any microplastics in it), then meet up with some friends or family for a movie afterwards, but you will bring your own refillable BPA free water bottle because you are a little dehydrated from the latte, message, and facial and don’t want to pay $12 for a bottle of water at the theater. Then you will get out of the movie and think to yourself… wow that was a pretty good day.

So, let’s start this over.

Good morning everyone!

My name is John Keller and I have titled this presentation. 5 years of art in 9 minutes.

I am the director of education and outreach for a non-profit arts organization called coLAB Arts. You can find us on all the social media stuff as @colabarts.

I am here to tell you a story. The story is how an arts organization found itself motivated and inspired to facilitate conversations around our watersheds, and our relationship to water.

First, a little background. What is coLAB Arts and how does our mission drive us to collaborate with non-arts based social advocacy organizations, government institutions, and community groups?

Our mission is quite simply an equation. We engaged artists, advocates, and communities to created transformative new art-work. For us transformation must be three things. It must be sustainable, positive, and community focused. We work in areas as diverse as juvenile justice reform, transgender rights, domestic violence prevention, and dignity for our immigrant neighbors.

But this one is about water. So here we go.

In 2015, myself and two coLAB Arts’ board members attended a watershed education workshop with the then recently formed Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership (LRWP). After the workshop we adopted a local stream and found what so many find in our urban areas: a stream in need of some love. We asked ourselves what we ask ourselves whenever engaging with a new advocacy concern:

How does the artist engage in this space?

What are the core issues that the advocacy partners are wrestling with? What are the historic contexts? What are the socio-political barriers to equity, diversity, inclusion, Justice and Access that the arts might help dismantle? Who are the communities not yet at the table? What are the questions not being asked? What are the ways artists can influence and augment research? – quantitative and qualitative data gathering. What are the complex ideas that artists can infuse into the conversation to make advocacy and even infrastructure better?

When LRWP heard these questions. And challenged us with some of their own for us to ponder. It was kismet. We began working together. Two organizations, arts and science. We formed a working group of artists, landscape architects, community organizers, and civic scientists, to wrestle with arts-based interventions to our natural and built environments. Early recognition from the American Architectural Foundation and their Sustainable Cities Design Academy gave us the opportunity generate bold ideas around on how the arts can drive sustainable changes to complex structural challenges.

We centered on a seemingly simple idea to drive the story of the work. It is the idea that the river is both a physical entity in our landscape, but it is also a powerful metaphor in our daily lives. It is all around us. It does not just exist in the physical limitations of the banks of a body of water, but it exists in our storm water systems, in the run-off from our homes, in our sprinklers, our faucets, in our dreams for quality of life, in our stories of migration, and our desperation in times of crisis. We began asking ourselves as well as the artists and communities brought into the work to #LookForTheRiver in all things.

We began work in earnest. Going alongside the LRWP on stream clean ups. Participating in macro invertebrate trainings, touring spaces and landscapes that maybe weren’t the most obvious places of water stewardship. We began engaging professional artists through programs like our National Endowment for the Arts funded residencies where we partner an artist with a non-arts based organization and task each with creating an engaged arts project that facilitates a conversation with community that generates new works of art inspired by some big problem or question that advocacy org is wrestling with. The model of that residency which now has multiple artists with a diverse group of organizations is successful in no small part to LRWP piloting that program our first year. Our Watershed Helping Hands Sculpture Project on display in the lobby is one such example of one of the community based art engagement programs that resulted from that artist residency.

Once the communities have been engaged and you have built a critical mass of participation. You have to think next steps.

At the end of the day we are an arts organization and the greatest way to partner with artists is to provide opportunities for them to create bold artistic gestures.

Our work has been both conceptual and literal.

We have used the process of cleanups, data collection and public access as our points of inspiration to create works that both reuse found materials as well as engage with artists from diverse backgrounds and disciplines such as sculptural work, dance, theater, and mixed media.

To integrate both professional arts creation with community arts creation. Recognizing that while not everything can be called great art, great art can come from anywhere. We balance the ethereal of the performative with the substance of created artifacts; both a natural growth from a new communal education on watershed health and quality and the provocation of a call to action.

When this happens a new kind of reality might be possible. Where if we truly look for the river in all of the aspects of our lives. We begin to question why is it absent? And we see our spaces built in essence to do whatever they can to keep the river out. To blot it out from our landscape…

But when you create the potential for new vision we can inspire ourselves, our planners, and political leaders to reintegrate the river into our lives; into our built cities, and our story telling. Accepting the river back becomes our way of solving infrastructure problems. Like a new art and history based greenway connecting public spaces through the heart of an urban area, or an art and green infrastructure concept project which includes a two-story sculpture work that becomes a wayfinding landmark, urban beautification, and a five thousand gallon cistern to keep water run-off from reaching the storm water system in times of flooding.

When empowering communities to create art that allows them to connect with both their environmental and social justice history we can make space to dream about ways in which we can work with our built communities to remember the landscape of our past. And find new ways to interact with it.

The arts are in incredible communicative tool. But the first act of social justice is to listen. Our creations cannot come before we first strive to listen with the intention of learning. Artists and water experts need to engage in this process together. When the artist is involved in the process – not just brought in at the end to slap some paint on a wall, not just asked to develop the PR or marketing strategy, rather allowing the artist to be in response to this listening process.

In 2019 we began an oral history archive which is about capturing those stories. Balancing the narratives. We research and collect the stories perhaps lost, perhaps suppressed, perhaps forgotten, around one very simple idea: Water is everywhere, and water is important to everyone.  And then doing what we do… make are that is in response and helps us all frame a greener future.

NFWF Funding – South River Restoration and Resiliency

Many thanks, and huge congrats, to LRWP Board Member Johnny Quispe for coordinating grant development for support through NFWF’s 2019 Coastal Resilience Fund.

It was announced earlier this week that $249,639 in National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) funds will go to develop the “South River Ecosystem Restoration and Flood Resiliency Enhancement Project (NJ)”.

More specifically, these monies will support Princeton Hydro and other watershed partners to:

“Conduct an ecosystem restoration site assessment and design for 165 acres of tidal marshes and transitional forest in New Jersey’s Raritan River Watershed. Project will result in an engineering plan with a permit-ready design to reduce coastal inundation and erosion along about 2.5 miles of shoreline for neighboring flood-prone communities and enhance breeding and foraging habitat for 10 state-listed threatened and endangered avian species.”

More information on the specific awards can be found here:


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