Thirty years ago, my husband and I moved into a house down at the end of a quiet street in Highland Park. Beside the house, in a low area, ran a little stream, nameless as far as I knew. I imagined making a garden beside it until I saw the muddy water that rushed through after heavy rains, rooting out vegetation, clawing away at the stream banks, and depositing all manner of storm debris. I came to think of the stream as nothing but a source of problems. Years went by. I sought advice from various experts and made some progress in resolving some problems, though others remained.
Eventually, in the Rutgers Environmental Stewardship program, I learned that the problems of urban streams are predictable and can, at least in theory, be mitigated. I learned that, with active community involvement, even large rivers have been significantly restored. The RES program led me to the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and a plan to document the stream that I now knew was called Mill Brook.
I took pictures and made lists of storm sewer outfalls, eroded portions of stream banks, retaining walls in various states of disrepair, and multiple types of litter, wondering how this information about predictable problems might be useful. Increasingly, my attention was caught by the magnificently tall trees in the Mill Brook stream corridor, the bird song high above me, the calming gurgle of the water at my feet, and the sense of being far away while actually only a few yards from the hubbub of one of the most densely populated regions in the United States. I have learned that Mill Brook has been a source of much happiness for others, too, over the years.
I composed this Story Map Mill Brook: Portrait of an Urban Stream to invite you, the reader, to experience for yourself this valuable natural resource that runs like a ribbon through our community. I hope that a virtuous circle may arise in which the value of Mill Brook is acknowledged in our communities so that we willingly do what it takes to resolve problems created by developments that include our own homes. In return, Mill Brook will increase in value to us because it is a healthier natural resource and because we will have the satisfaction of caring for it.
Sadly the weather does not look cooperative, and as such we are CANCELLING our May 12 Mother’s Day clean-up of Mill Brook.
We don’t do this lightly. Forecast says solid rain from 9-2, some of which may be pretty heavy. While cleaning up in the rain is fun, it is not necessarily safe (especially in high water and fast-moving streams). And picnicking in the rain is a bit of a bummer.
HUGE THANKS to all the amazing groups and individuals involved! And please hold Sunday October 13 as a possible rain date.
Please join the LRWP, our Americorps Watershed Ambassador Von Scully, Trash Troubadour Dave Seamon, and community partners including the Highland Park Environmental Commission, City of Highland Park, Reformed Church of Highland Park, Sustainable Highland Park, Highland Park Ecology and Environmental Group, Highland Park High School Environmental Club, Edison Environmental Commission, Middlesex County Parks & Recreation Conservation Corps, Central Jersey Coalition Against Endless War, and others for a multi-site clean-up of Mill Brook, culminating in a community celebration in Johnson Park (Grove 2)! (see here for a pdf version of our flyer to share: Mill Brook Flyer-compressed)
WHAT: a clean-up of Mill Brook (Highland Park and Edison), followed by a community picnic and celebration
WHEN: Sunday May 12, 2019
10:00 AM to noon – clean-up of multiple sites.
12-1:30 pm community gathering / picnic in Johnson Park, Grove 2
WHERE: Please register for one of three teams:
Team Johnson Park (park near Grove 2): coordinated by the Middlesex County Parks & Recreation Conservation Corps
Team Bridge & Culvert (meet in Johnson Park near Grove 2): coordinated by the Mill Brook Streamkeeper and Highland Park Ecology and Environmental Group
Team John Marshall Elementary School (15 Cornell Street, Edison, NJ): coordinated by the Highland Park High School Environmental Club and friends
SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS: Wear shoes and clothing appropriate for getting wet and/or muddy. We are in tick season! Wear long sleeve pants and shirts. Bring sunscreen/hat. Bring a reusable water bottle. Have fun!
Everyone is welcome to join us in Johnson Park (Grove 2) for a community celebration and picnic from 12-1:30 PM.
We will provide some foodstuffs (sandwiches, chips) and beverages to share. Please bring chairs, picnic blankets and your favorite picnic treats!
Want to learn more about Mill Brook? Check out LRWP Streamkeeper Susan Edmunds’ StoryMap photo tour of this fascinating waterway. Mill Brook: Portrait of an Urban Stream tells the story Mill Brook, a tributary of the Raritan running through Edison and Highland Park.
The LRWP is often asked to identify top environmental issues facing our Central Jersey watershed communities, and every year we develop a “Top 10” list of concerns. Through 2019 we will feature one concern a month on our website, exploring that issue (and potential solutions) in more detail. This month we consider the problems caused by culverting, piping, developing over or otherwise “hiding” our streams, and provide strategies through which we can find them again.
The Lower Raritan Watershed is full of ghost streams. Entrepreneurs, town councils, industry, and home owners have long buried streams to develop their land and businesses, to expand their towns, to build their homes, and to address public health concerns. The result is centuries of piping, culverting, construction, and development that have hidden the vast majority of streams and rivers in our urban landscape.
The impact of “hiding” so many of our streams is devastating. Lower Raritan communities are alienated from our waterways and historic ecologies, habitats are degraded, water quality is compromised, and stormwater runoff and flooding intensify. Not only in the Lower Raritan, but throughout the United States and globally, these impacts are most acutely felt in areas with low socioeconomic status and vulnerable populations. In the face of climate change and increased precipitation and runoff, these communities bear disproportionate risk and adaptive burden.
We know that healthy, open streams play an important role in stormwater management. In a healthy stream, stormwater gets absorbed and gradually released by soil and plants. An open stream not only slows and controls stormwater surge, it also provides habitat for wildlife, and provides the aesthetic benefits of cool spaces and greenery.
Streams, especially small ones, also play an important role in improving water quality. A healthy stream ecosystem can remove excess nutrients, sediment, and other contaminants from water before it flows into our Rivers, Bays or Oceans. Recent research by the Environmental Protection Agency found that nitrates—nutrients that can become pollutants—travel on average 18 times further in buried urban streams than they do in open streams before they are taken out of the water column. This means that in areas with many buried streams like the Lower Raritan Watershed, larger water bodies including Raritan River and Raritan Bay receive more pollutants than if the waterways upstream were open and healthy and serving to filter pollutants as stormwater runoff travels its course.
Of course the best first action with respect to keeping streams healthy is to avoid culverting, piping, constructing over or otherwise developing them. However, in already heavily developed areas like the Lower Raritan Watershed, much damage has already been done. In some of our Lower Raritan towns more than 50% of surfaces are paved over, including all waterways that were in evidence on maps from the 1800s.
Walk down most any of our main streets and you are likely to “walk on water” without any awareness of what is beneath your feet. If you pay careful attention however, as students did during our 2018 summer camp, you can hear the streams and trace their course, even if you cannot actually see them. Learning about our landscape, and “finding” our hidden streams is the next best action to take in protecting them.
Learning to decipher our landscape, and trying to “find” our hidden streams are central to the LRWP’s new #lookfortheriver campaign.
The LRWP is building the #lookfortheriver campaign to bring attention to the problems of “hiding” or disappearing our streams, and to identify ways of finding them again. In addition to teaching folks about the landscape in fun ways, this involves collecting stories by volunteers and contributors who take the time observe and document their area streams, and who highlight the great benefits of landscape connectivity. Joe Mish’s most recent February essay is a great example: Along the South Branch Connected. Margo Persin’s year of blog post’s about Ambrose Brook is another.
#lookfortheriver activities include our newly launched “Watershed Highlights and Hidden Streams: Walking Tours of the Lower Raritan Watershed,” to be led by Rutgers Professor and LRWP Board Member David Tulloch. These walks will look at landscape connections to our waterways and what this means. The series kicks off on Sunday March 16 close to the Rutgers campus, with exploration of the connections between Buell Brook and the Raritan, connecting Johnson Park and the historic Raritan Landing with the Eco Preserve.
#lookfortheriver includes working with volunteers to understand how our landscape works, where it doesn’t, and how to fix the problems we observe. Susan Edmunds’s research into the history of Mill Brook, and her careful study and documentation of the stream (see her online Storymap Mill Brook: A Portrait of an Urban Stream) lends tremendous insight into landscape functions of a relatively forgotten stream. Susan will present on this project in at the Highland Park public library on Sunday March 24. Joining Susan will be Rutgers student Jillian Dorsey, who will highlight findings from her thesis research on Mill Brook that shows how property owners can protect their urban streams. We hope these efforts will further mobilize municipal action to restore local streams, and that they will inspire homeowners in proper maintenance of waterway-adjacent homes. In fact, this work has already inspired the Highland Park Council to partner with the LRWP for a multi-site clean-up of Mill Brook, scheduled for Sunday May 12 – please save the date!
The legacy of development, culverting and piping that has hidden our streams exacerbates flooding and pollution transfer. It has disconnected us from our waterways and from our land. This is disastrous for our communities, but we are learning new ways “find” our streams again and fix these problems. Join us in online to discussions, at meetings, or for our “Hidden Streams Walking Tours”. Or simply start exploring the watershed on your own. Give close attention to landscape cues – the sound of rushing water in a storm sewer, collections of sediment and debris in low lying areas, and dense growth of trees and weeds. In this way we connect to our landscape and waterways, imagine their past, and can begin to plan for a future of “finding” and restoring them.
Join us on Sunday March 24, 2PM at the Highland Park Public Library to learn about Mill Brook – a Tributary of the Raritan River.
LRWP Streamkeeper, Highland Park resident and Rutgers Environmental Steward Susan Edmunds will present on her internship work with the LRWP, through which she documented the history of this waterway that runs through Edison and Highland Park. Following Susan’s presentation, Rutgers Graduate Student Jillian Dorsey (Landscape Architecture) will present findings from her thesis research on Mill Brook, highlighting steps property owners can take to protect their urban streams.
Sponsored by the LRWP, Highland Park Historical Commission, Highland Park Environmental Commission, Native Plant Society of NJ – Highland Park Chapter.
Please contact Heather Fenyk for more information: hfenyk AT lowerraritanwatershed DOT org