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.
Article by LRWP Raritan Scholar Intern Daniel Cohen
Highland Park resident Susan Edmunds is the first “Streamkeeper” for the Mill Brook, a tributary of the Lower Raritan Watershed.
LRWP Streamkeeper Susan Edmunds, a 30 year resident of Highland Park, lives adjacent to a tributary of the Raritan River called Mill Brook. During the time Susan has lived alongside the Mill Brook, she has become committed to the environmental sustainability of this stream. As part of a Rutgers Environmental Stewards program internship, conducted with the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, Susan documented the condition of the Mill Brook through historical research and photography, synthesizing this information in an online “storymap” titled Mill Brook: Portrait of an Urban Stream.
Susan is a strong advocate for what she terms “a new understanding” by all stakeholders in order to remedy the serious threats which endanger the environmental viability of the stream. I walked along the waterway with her as she highlighted several major environmental challenges facing Mill Brook. These include illegal dumping of commercial and residential trash, and wash off of chemical herbicides and fertilizers from nearby lawns into the stream. This wash off is part of what is called “non-point source pollution,” and includes not just herbicides and fertilizers, but also animal waste, motor vehicle oil and other chemicals.
As we continued walking downstream, Susan told me that in recent years Mill Brook has experienced intensified erosion and flooding events. She pointed out the proliferation of driveways, parking lots, and walls — what is known as impervious surfaces — that prevent the natural absorption of rainwater into the soil and results in “stormwater runoff.” She then explained how excessive amounts of stormwater runoff exacerbates erosion of lawns and damage to residential structures, and also carries downstream pollution in the form of silt and gravel and non-point pollution.
Even before becoming part of the LRWP’s inaugural team of Streamkeepers, Susan has long been committed to restoring the natural beauty of Mill Brook. She regularly removes debris from its banks, and replaces invasive plants with native flora. In her role as Streamkeeper she has added regular monitoring and reporting on stream health. She understands that while her isolated efforts are important, care of Mill Brook requires a long-term commitment by Edison and Highland Park residents as well as municipal authorities.
Susan sees that inspiring a collective commitment to the health of Mill Brook is a crucial part of her role as Streamkeeper. Her goal is to encourage others to appreciate the Mill Brook as much as she does. She strongly believes that when residents learn about and visit the stream they will be motivated to care for it. In this sense she says she hopes her tenure as Mill Brook’s formal Streamkeeper will be short – and that her work will inspire someone else to become a steward and “Streamkeeper” of the stream.
Susan gave me examples of other stewardship she would like to see. For example, schools in the vicinity of the Mill Brook should encourage students to participate in restoring the waterway. And homeowners and business owners who live and work in proximity to the Mill Brook should treat the waterway as the living system it is, and give it room to serve as flood control and to allow for native riparian habitat (not lawns!) to become established. Susan believes that small steps like these will not only help ensure the environmental sustainability Mill Brook, but of all of our endangered watersheds.