By Johnny Quispe, Ph.D., LRWP Board Member and Princeton Hydro Ecosystem Restoration Project Lead
Just 50 miles southeast of New York City, tucked between two municipalities, sits a 650+ acre tidal salt marsh which spans the shorelines of the South River in densely populated, highly developed Central New Jersey. The South River is the first major tributary of the Raritan River, located 8.3 miles upstream of the Raritan River’s mouth, which drains into Raritan Bay.
The Lower Raritan River and Raritan Bay make up a large part of the core of the NY-NJ Harbor and Estuary Program. Within the Raritan Estuary, the South River wetland ecosystem is one of the largest remaining wetland complexes. While the South River salt marsh ecosystem has been spared from direct development, it has been degraded in quality, and does not provide optimal habitat for wildlife or maximum flood protection for residents. This area is subject to fairly regular tidal flooding (particularly when it occurs simultaneously with a storm) and periodic—generally more severe—flooding during more significant events such as nor’easters and tropical storms. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy caused damage in the Boroughs of Sayreville and South River too.
In 2018, Princeton Hydro and Rutgers University, along with the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, Middlesex County, Borough of Sayreville, Borough of South River, NY/NJ Baykeeper, Raritan Riverkeeper, and the Sustainable Raritan River Initiative, secured funding from NFWF’s National Coastal Resilience Fund for the “South River Ecosystem Restoration & Flood Resiliency Enhancement Project.”
The South River Ecosystem Restoration and Flood Resiliency Enhancement Project aims to:
Reduce socioeconomic damages to the Boroughs of South River and Sayreville caused by storm damage, flooding, and sea level rise;
Transform degraded wetlands to high-quality marsh that can reduce flooding and enhance fish & wildlife habitat; and
Engage stakeholders in activities about coastal resilience and ecological health to maximize public outreach in the Raritan River Watershed.
For this 165-acre tidal marsh and transitional forest “eco-park,” the project team is conducting an ecosystem restoration site assessment and design. This phase of the coastal restoration project will result in a permit-ready engineering design plan that stabilizes approximately 2.5 miles of shoreline, reduces flood risk for smaller coastal storms, and enhances breeding and foraging habitat for 10 state-listed threatened and endangered avian species.
Project Area History
This area has experienced repeated flooding, especially during large storms. For example, coastal areas of Sayreville and South River flooded after Hurricane Floyd (1999), Tropical Storm Ernesto (2006), Hurricane Irene (2011), and Hurricane Sandy (2012). Over the last century, there have been several studies and assessments completed for the South River, many of which identify this project area as a priority location for flooding improvements. The following are key reports and studies published about the project area and surrounding communities:
NJ Legislature’s 71st Congress published a report, “Basinwide Water Resource Development Report on the Raritan River Basin” which focused on navigation and flood control for the entire Raritan River Basin. It discussed recommendations for flood control and local storm drainage, setting the stage for future actions.
NJDEP Division of Water Resources published Flood Hazard Reports for the Matchaponix Brook System and Raritan River Basin, which delineated the floodplains in the South River, and its tributaries, the Manalapan Brook and Matchaponix Brook.
USACE New York District released a “Survey Report for Flood Control, Raritan River Basin,” which served as a comprehensive study of the Raritan River Basin and recommended several additional studies. Although the South River was studied, none of the proposed improvements were determined to be economically feasible at that time.
Project area was listed as one of the Nation’s Estuaries of National Significance.
USACE conducted a multi-purpose study of this area. This preliminary investigation identified Federal interest in Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction and ecosystem restoration along the South River and concluded that a 100-year level of structural protection would be technically and economically feasible.
USACE NYD and NJDEP released a joint draft, “Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement” for the South River, Raritan River Basin, which focused on “Hurricane & Storm Damage Reduction and Ecosystem Restoration.” Because it was previously determined that there were no widespread flooding problems upstream, the study area was modified to focus on the flood-prone areas within the Boroughs of Sayreville and South River, as well as Old Bridge Township.
Towards a More Resilient South River Ecosystem
Through collaboration with our project partners and following input provided from a virtual stakeholder meeting held in December 2020, Princeton Hydro developed a conceptual design for an eco-park that incorporates habitat enhancement and restoration, and protective measures to reduce impacts from flooding while maximizing public access and utility. Public access includes trails for walking and designated areas for fishing. The eco-park can also be used for additional recreation activities such as bird watching and kayaking.
Highlights of the conceptual design include the following features:
Approximately two miles of trails with overlook areas, connection to fishing access, and a kayak launch.
~3,000 linear feet of living shoreline, located along portions of the Washington Canal and the South River, to provide protection from erosion, reduce the wake and wave action, and provide habitat for aquatic and terrestrial organisms.
~60 acres of enhanced upland forest to provide contiguous habitat areas for resident and migratory fauna.
A tidal channel that will connect to the existing mud flat on the southeastern part of the site and provide tidal flushing to proposed low and high marsh habitats along its banks.
A vegetated berm with a trail atop will extend the length of the site to help mitigate flood risk.
Two nesting platforms for Osprey, a species listed as “Threatened” in NJ
Designated nesting habitat for the Diamondback Terrapin, a species listed as “Special Concern” in NJ
Interview by Emily Koai, LRWP Spring 2020 Raritan Scholar
Johnny Quispe, born and raised in New Jersey’s Hackensack Watershed (Hudson County), started his B.S. at Rutgers – New Brunswick in 2009, then returned in 2014 to pursue a masters in Ecology. Johnny is now working on his doctorate in the lab of Jean Marie Hartman, an associate professor of Landscape Architecture. Through Professor Hartman, Johnny met Heather Fenyk, Board President of the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership, and began collaborating with the LRWP on Raritan River-focused research. Johnny joined the LRWP Board in 2019 with the goal of expanding on his passion for advocacy for the river through community outreach. His current outreach involves work in South River and Sayreville on the South River Ecosystems Project, which has evolved through support from a diversity of stakeholders. Johnny recently secured a $249,000 National Fish and Wildlife Federation grant for project preliminary design and site assessment for the South River Ecosystem Restoration & Flood Resiliency Enhancement Project. Johnny seeks to guide this project through design to ultimately improve public access to the Raritan.
EK:Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
JQ: I first came to Rutgers in 2009 and wanted to pursue environmental policy. In addition to learning about local, municipal and federal policies, I started interning at a local non-profit, Edison Wetlands Association (EWA). That advocacy experience really helped me see policy play out on the ground. I attended a Coastal Estuarine Research Federation conference which opened my eyes to how sea level rise is going to impact wetlands. I decided early on to focus my studies on the Raritan and Raritan Bay, looking at the impacts that sea level and a changing climate has on, not only coastal ecosystems, but coastal communities.
I returned to Rutgers in 2014 to work under Jean Marie Hartman, starting a masters in ecology, the study of an organism and its interactions with its environment or with other organisms. I saw this as another way of looking at the world. Jean Marie really let my imagination fly. She gave me the opportunity to work on several projects with her, on all ranges of things. That’s when the connection between the importance of wetlands and what I had been advocating for in my internship really came together.
EK: Your research explores the relationship between sea level rise (SLR) and coastal wetlands and its impacts on the vulnerabilities of coastal areas. Is there anything specifically about the subject that you wanted to communicate to a wider audience?
JQ: There are many ways in which we can perceive risk. Sometimes we look at things one-dimensionally. When we look at coastal ecosystems we use different lenses: an environmental lens, a natural resource lens, and sometimes in terms of zoning. So how can we look at development and create positive opportunities for communities to build themselves up? How do we identify and prioritize these locations and bring more attention to these areas?
Sea level rise is not created equal. There are areas that are more at risk than others. This is subject to change as we continue to make decisions which can accelerate this change in sea level. As a society, we can start making significant changes. Some of these impacts may take a little longer to become realized, so we need communities, municipalities, the state, and federal government to all start thinking with a longer-term lens.
This means that planning boards and town councils should take a long range view of zoning: not just 10 or 20 years. 30 years is often seen as the lifetime of a structure, but you see even that expanding. How are we preparing for 2050 and beyond?
Everyone else’s risk is still kind of the same if municipalities put resources into their own municipal boundaries. Sometimes that is shortsighted. Taking a watershed or regional view to partner with other municipalities and the state, you can design projects that have more lasting impacts. There has to be cross pollination between our municipalities, and lead efforts by the state, to take a step up and organize at the larger, landscape scale.
EK:How have you directly encouraged policy-makers, municipalities, and individuals on the path of enhancing their own roles?
JQ: Experts at all levels need to listen to people. We need to listen to what the needs are. That is where you’ll find all the information you need about a location. I think, as well intentioned as researchers, government officials, and others may be, sometimes they make change without consulting the people that change is going to affect. Understandably, this leaves a sour feeling with the community.
Having buy in from stakeholders is important. I meet with community members, stakeholders, folks from different nonprofits in the area, and people from different settings. I think everyone has a stake in it, so they want to be part of the process. If you eliminate the possibility for groups to be part of planning, they ultimately feel that they’re being subjected to the change. Sharing these ideas in public meetings that are accessible and allowing participation is important.
As we continue to see these impacts in coastal communities across the US, these are the kind of processes that are going to have to happen. Otherwise we have unsolicited buybacks and changes being made without much buy-in from the community. You’re going to have a lot of pushback and a lot of people who are unhappy.
EK:Is there anything you think is key to trying to get the whole process to come together?
JQ: I think researchers or officials looking to make changes really need to embed themselves in the community—to be part of that community, otherwise you’re just going to be seen as the third party coming in and telling the community what’s best for them.
I’ve been working in the Lower Raritan since 2009, and have established relationships that have blossomed into my current projects. My time working in a local non-profit really allowed me to meet all the non-profit stakeholders and people who have been fighting to make the Raritan a better place for the last 20-30 years.
I think what everyone needs to do is find a champion—someone who they can align themselves with to help them push some of these ideas forward. If you’re not part of the community, who is part of the community, and how can you work with that person to really get the facts and get the message out there? That’s what’s really key. My hope is to identify champions along the east coast who can really get these kinds of projects started. I see myself more as a bridge-builder—someone who is bringing people together, really letting some ideas simmer and take them and try as much as I can, with the help of others, to bring those to fruition.
The LRWP and South River Green Team are co-hosting this hour-long public discussion, sponsored by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, to capture stories about the different ways water matters to New Jerseyans.
Participants will have the opportunity to contribute their water story to a statewide public archive documenting personal connections to water and waterways in New Jersey. No prior preparation is needed to attend, and all are welcome to share or listen.
Join us Saturday February 8, 1:30-2:30 pm at the South River Public Library 55 Appleby Ave, South River, NJ 08882
This workshop creates the space to talk about meaningful water sites and sources for individuals and communities in New Jersey. Stories from consenting participants captured from this event, and others throughout the state, will be part of a public archive and digital exhibition that creatively visualizes, interprets, and maps New Jersey water stories and the waterways that inspired them. After capturing water stories in each county over the next year, project coordinators will curate a digital exhibition (website) to interpret, display, and share water stories.
On Saturday February 1 the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and the Rutgers Bloustein School Environmental Planning Studio will join the South River Green Team and the larger South River community for a conversation about resiliency in the context of riverine/coastal flooding and floodplain buyouts prompted by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. We will discuss research tasks the Environmental Planning Studio students will engage in during the course of the Spring 2020 semester, including work on a Sustainable Jersey “Water Story” action. Our discussion will be followed by a tour of the flood affected areas.
South River residents, and residents of the larger Lower Raritan Watershed, are welcome to join.
We will meet at the First Reformed Church, 40 Thomas St., Lower Level at 1 pm.
Parking is available in the lot that can be entered through the drive between 42 and 44 Thomas Street.
1 p.m. — Planning studio meets the Green Team
1:30 p.m. — Sustainable Jersey staff and partners join
2:30 p.m. — Tour of flood areas
Special attention will be given to South River’s Census Tract 69, home to a low socio-economic status immigrant community with a life expectancy well lower than the national average. Residents in Census Tract 69 have a four-year lower life expectancy than in neighboring tracts in South River, and the lowest in Middlesex County.
Throughout the course of the semester students will work to understand how coastal/riverine flooding, buyouts, open space, and water infrastructure (water supply, wastewater, stormwater) affects health outcomes. This will include analysis of development and neighborhood change patterns, living conditions, demographic shifts and what the long-term implications of this change may be for the region and other flood-inundated riverine and coastal areas.
Please contact the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership for more information: #908.349.0281
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:
Editor’s note: The LRWP is regularly amazed by the behind-the-scenes work of municipal Green Teams, Environmental Commissions and other groups to advance environmental protections and restoration throughout the watershed. The South River Green Team shared their New Year’s Resolutions with us (see Mark Barry’s article below), and we think these goals are pretty inspiring. Are you part of a Green Team, Environmental Commission or other group with plans to tackle big (and small) environmental issues in your community? Share them with us, and we will post them on our blog as a way to encourage others to likewise prepare and act for a healthier watershed.
By Mark Barry, South River Green Team
Community Garden — creation of pollinator garden, bee keeping, bat houses, nursery for street tree replacement, flower nursery for community beautification projects, Adopt-a-Spot (or street) for clean-ups and beautification.
River Advocacy — flood plain restoration and tree planting, recommending creation of a local river advocacy community group and/or permanent inter-municipal advisory board, study riparian land use zoning, Blue Acres property reactivation, Brownfields inventory and landuse, flood resiliency.
Natural Resources — green infrastructure planning and implementation, assist in ERI/NRI research, review processes in Community Forestry Plan and tree planting/inventory.
Transparency and Open Government Taskforce — study and issue report of recommendations on improving access to government and records, produce a guide to preparing public body minutes, review public information and publicity efforts of the borough and school district.
Creative South River — encourage creative arts respecting inclusiveness and diversity, pursue arts funding and grants, mural installations to combat graffiti.
The main Green Team Committee will also continue to advocate for the environment and sustainability by pursuing Sustainable Jersey certification, make recommendations to the South River governing body and undertake public education efforts on all matters green.
See below for photos from a successful 2018 in South River
Charging station installed in July 2018 – Photo by Mark Barry
South River GT youth contingent outnumbers GT members – Photo by Mark Barry
Initiation of the South River community garden – Photo by Mark Barry
Note: The yard references are to my house in the section of Monroe between Helmetta and Jamesburg in South Middlesex County. My yard is in a Pine Barrens outlier on the Inner Coastal Plain, the soil is loamy, and my neighborhood is on the boundary of Gardening Zones 6b (cooler) and 7a (warmer). Afield references are to the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, unless otherwise noted. Photographs are for the period covered, unless otherwise noted.
The Van Dyke Farm at Pigeon Swamp, South Brunswick/Middlesex County, where growing crops meets the woods.
VAN DYKE FARM: A favorite place to shoot photographs of mine is the Van Dyke Farm at Pigeon Swamp in South Brunswick/Middlesex County. It offers big-sky views to the west and the setting sun. See http://www.middlesexcountynj.gov/About/ParksRecreation/Pages/PR/VanDyke.aspx.
SOURLAND MOUNTAIN: I hiked one of my favorite Midlands places, Sourland Mountain on the boundary of Somerset, Hunterdon, and Mercer counties with a club I have been a member of for about 35 years, the Outdoor Club of South Jersey. On the mountain, I saw various flowers in bloom: showy orchid, “Galearis spectabilis,”; rue anemone, “Anemonella thalictroides”; and spring beauties, “”Claytonia virginica.” Being on the Piedmont with its rocky terrain, Sourland Mountain is much different than my generally flat and sandy Pine Barrens around Helmetta.
The Roaring Rocks boulder field on Sourland Mountain. Notice the hikers in the upper part of the photo.
A showy orchid on Sourland Mountain
FLATLANDERS VERSUS HILLTOPPERS: For purposes of this writing, New Jersey has four geological areas, which run northeast to southwest: from west to east, Ridges and Valleys, Highlands, Piedmont, and Coastal Plain. (The Coastal Plain can be divided into two areas, Inner and Outer, making it five regions.) Generally, the Midlands are divided into the Piedmont and Coastal Plain, with distinct characteristics. The generally flat Coastal Plain has white, sandy soil (think Shore and Pine Barrens) and dark soil (think conventional farming areas). The rolling Piedmont has red shale and traprock boulders.
Piedmont red shale at Sourland Mountain, which is in the background.
Traprock boulders on Sourland Mountain.
Coastal Plain dark soil at Cranbury/Middlesex County.
White, sandy soil in the Pine Barrens of Helmetta on the Coastal Plain.
FULL MOON AND PLANTING: The full moon was May 10, Wednesday, and some feel it is OK, now, to plant warm weather crops. Not me, especially with the cooler weather we have been having. I am still waiting for May 20 (if it warms up) to June 1 (if it remains on the cool side). Then, I will plant my warmer season crop – tomatoes, mushmellon, sweet corn, and cucumbers, along with zinnias to attract pollinators and for their beauty.
The near-Full Corn-Planting Moon. The full moon was Wednesday, May 10.
FOOD GARDEN: I weeded for the first time around the cool weather crops — “Salad Bowl” heirloom lettuce, “Rainbow Blend” carrots, and “Sugar Daddy” snap peas, all “Lake Valley Seed Company” brand — that have sprouted. I continue watering the garden.
Lake Valley Seed Company “Salad Bowl” heirloom lettuce growing in my garden.
WATERING THE FOOD GARDEN: My goal is to give the food garden a thorough watering by 10 a.m. This allows the garden to retain water, rather than have the water evaporate in the heat of day, and allows the garden to dry by the dewy nightfall to prevent fungal growth.
KEEPING WILDLIFE AWAY, CAYENNE PEPPER: I was talking a waitress at the Dayton Diner in South Brunswick/Middlesex County. An experienced gardener, she recommended using cayenne pepper as a method of pest control around the garden. I plan on trying that.
ALONG THE SOUTH RIVER: My travels took me across the South River at Old Bridge village on the boundary of Old Bridge, Sayreville, and East Brunswick, all in Middlesex County. On my way back, I stopped to shoot photographs between Old Bridge village and the New Causeway on the boundary of South River and Sayreville, both in Middlesex County. The South River is formed by the meeting of Manalapan and Matchaponix brooks on the Spotswood-Old Bridge boundary at DuHerNaL Lake/Middlesex County. (DuHerNaL Lake gets its name from the three companies that had used it as a reservoir: DuPont, Hercules, and National Lead.) Normally, I do not think of inland self, 25 or so miles from the Atlantic Ocean, living near salt water, but the tidal effect begins at the bottom of the DuHerNal Lake dam, only a little more than 4 miles from my house.
The South River at low tide at Old Bridge village.
The South River at low tide at the New Causeway on the South River-Sayreville boundary. This scene looks upstream toward the railroad bridge and the South River Boat Club — Sayreville on the left, South River on the right.
KILLDEER: When I was at the South River at Cannon Brothers Park in South River, I spooked a killdeer, “Charadrius vociferous.” The species screeches a “kill-deer” call. Because of the way the bird was acting, panicked but not leaving the area, I suspect it had a nest nearby it was trying to divert me from. An adult killdeer will even fake a broken wing to get a predator to follow it, rather than have the predator attack the ground nest. I could not find a nest.
A killdeer along the South River in South River.
TURKEYS: Some thoughts from Bob Eriksen, the retired state turkey biologist, on “Meleagris gallopavo,” “…Wild turkeys that have adapted to suburbia will sometimes nest in among shrubs in a yard. I had one nest next to a gravestone in a cemetery. Most of the time turkey nests are in the woods or in an overgrown field. Hens will tuck in next to a tree trunk, at the base of a shrub, or in a blowdown, especially if there is a branch within a few feet. They like to have a bit of overhead cover. Once the grass in hayfields is tall enough to hide the hen crouched down (usually second week of May), a hen turkey will nest in a hayfield. Cover is the main consideration. Hens are pretty secretive approaching the nest. They may circle or use different approaches when they go to the nest to lay. When the clutch is large enough (10-12 eggs), she will begin to incubate. For the first couple of nights after she has completed her clutch, she may tree roost, but that changes fast. Once incubation begins, the hen will be on the nest 20 or more hours a day.” (A shout out to Bob for always being so helpful.)
JERSEY MIDLANDS LORE: Another good source of information is legendary Helmetta outdoorsman Ralph “Rusty” Richards, 84-years-old. During one of our occasional breakfasts of members of 100-year Helmetta families, Rusty was talking about deer-hunting. In the early part of the 20th Century, white-tailed deer, “Odocoileus virginianus,” were almost gone from New Jersey because of over-hunting. As the state brought them back, they gradually re-settled. About 1950, they were in the Broadway Woods area of South Brunswick/Middlesex County, only a few miles from Helmetta, according to Rusty. Then, about 1955, they were settled around Helmetta, Rusty said.
In 2011, Rusty Richards with “opienki” mushrooms, genus “Armillaria,” in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta.
BOBWHITE: Did I hear a bobwhite quail, “Colinus virginianus,” calling in my neighborhood? If so, it would have been a return to my childhood when one could hear the “Bob White” call at night. Bobwhites have become rare in New Jersey because of habitat loss, but, in recent years, there has been an effort to welcome them back. So, was it a wild bobwhite or not? I do not know….
TICKS: Reports are still coming in on how bad a tick season it is.
I am hearing reports of deer ticks, “Ixodes scapularis,” and lone star ticks, “Amblyomma americanum.” Various reasons may be causing the problem, including warm weather generating acorn growth and, in turn, the acorns providing abundant food to tick-carrying animals, along with the recent rainy weather. “More rain typically enhances tick season,” said meteorologist Steve DiMartino.
A lone star tick on my leg. Lone star ticks are easily identifiable by the yellow dot on their backs.
PINE BARRENS AROUND HELMETTA: Pink lady-slipper orchids, “Cypripedium acaule,” continue to bloom. I know of a spot that has about 75 lady-slippers, with about five in bloom. If you see a pink lady-slipper, look around for more in the area; I see them in clusters. And do not pick them!
A blooming pink lady-slipper orchid, with another, left and to the rear of the blooming orchid, poking through the ground.
SUNRISE/SUNSET: For the week of May 14, Sunday, to May 20, Saturday, the sun will rise at about 5:40 a.m. and set at about 8:10 p.m.
WEATHER: Go to the National Weather Service forecasting station for the area, http://www.weather.gov/phi/.
THE END-OF-THE-WEEK RAIN: I look to a thorough rain around May 15 to green up the woods for the season. The steady, heavy rain of Saturday, May 13, should have accomplished that. By late Saturday night as the rain continued, my rain gauge showed 2.3 inches.
WEATHER: Go to the National Weather Service forecasting station for the area, http://www.weather.gov/phi/.
A red-bellied woodpecker, “Melanerpes carolinus,” sitting in a pitch pine, “Pinus rigida,” in my backyard.
Joe Sapia, 60, is a lifelong Monroe resident. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and an organic vegetable-fruit gardener.
He gardens the same backyard plot as did his Italian-American father, Joe Sr., and his Polish-immigrant, maternal grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda. Both are inspirations for his food gardening. Joe is active with the Rutgers University Master Gardeners/Middlesex County program. He draws inspiration on the Pine Barrens around Helmetta from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in these Pines, and his Grandma Annie.