by LRWP Streamkeeper Susan Edmunds
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.
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!
#lookfortheriver also includes ambitious proposals to “daylight” local streams. One such proposal is for New Brunswick’s Lyell’s Brook Green Infrastructure Landscape Corridor.
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.
Please join us as we #lookfortheriver
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.
Thank you, Susan!
Photos and article by Michele Bakacs, Environmental and Resource Management Agent, Cooperative Extension of Middlesex County, Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Through a relatively new program sponsored by Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, citizens throughout the Lower Raritan Watershed are working to help people discover the hidden natural world flowing through their communities. These citizens are part of the Rutgers Environmental Steward program and their projects range from conducting stream habitat assessments to developing middle school illustration lessons highlighting the flora and fauna of the watershed.
The goal of the Rutgers Environmental Steward program is to help citizens understand the science behind pressing environmental issues and help create positive environmental change in their communities. Susan Edmunds from Highland Park is one such Environmental Steward working on assessing the health of Mill Brook, a tributary of the Lower Raritan River.
“My goal is to bring an awareness of the Mill Brook to the community so we can work to protect it and use it as an asset. I have realized the most important thing to do is just talk to people about the brook. So many people just don’t know it is there. It would be nice to be able to take a stroll along the brook in some of the already existing parks.”
One morning in September, we scramble down a steep ravine and climb down over branches to the brook. The brook is hidden behind chain link fences, railroad overpasses, and overgrown vegetation. Once you are there you can’t believe how beautiful it is. We are transported to a natural world where the gurgling stream winds its way past towering locusts and silver maple canopy trees, and through sandstone and shale outcrops. Of course we see garbage and dumping typical of every urban waterway- the stereotypical abandoned tire and shopping cart, down trees across the stream collecting trash showing you just how damaging plastic water bottles can be to our environment when not disposed of properly. But except for the occasional train coming by as a reminder, you can barely tell how close we are to houses, roads, and train tracks. There’s the sounds of birds, leaves blowing, shadows and sunlight peaking through the trees on the water. The brook is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered by anyone who makes the effort to find it.
“The Environmental Stewards program was exactly what I hoped it would be in that I gave me a way to start getting involved with environmental protection in my community.”
Environmental Steward Susan Edmunds Assesses Mill Brook
Mapping Mill Brook is the project Susan chose for her Rutgers Environmental Steward internship. After attending about 60 hours of classes that start in January and run through June, Stewards complete an internship project of their choosing in order to become a certified Rutgers Environmental Stewards. The program welcomes non-scientists and links them with members of the academic community, government, and non-profits. The curriculum includes classes, field trips, and an internship. Once Susan is done mapping her section of Mill Brook she will summarize her findings for the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership who will use her work to prioritize sections of the Lower Raritan for monitoring, restoration, and clean up.
“Already this project has connected me with so many people who are just like me in that they want to clean up this stream. From this assessment I plan to create a presentation about the brook and its history. I am excited about the potential for a Friends of the Mill Brook group working together towards stream access. This assessment is just the beginning of my journey.”
During the assessment, Susan takes pictures of deteriorating culverts, tree snags that collect garbage and stormdrain outfalls- concrete pipes that empty the rainwater runoff from local roads into the stream. We walk into a steep ravine probably 25 feet high with sandstone and shale outcrops leading to a large culvert where the stream flows under the NJTransit’s train tracks. This ends today’s journey and we turn around to make our way back to civilization.
If you are like Susan, and looking to start your own journey helping to protect the local environment, then sign up for the 2017 Rutgers Environmental Stewards class. Classes start in January in 5 counties throughout the state including Middlesex County at the EARTH Center in South Brunswick, and Somerset County at Duke Farms. For more information contact Michele Bakacs, at 732-398-5274, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our website http://envirostewards.rutgers.edu/