New Jersey Confers Strict Water Protections on 600 Miles of Waterways

Aerial view of the Cooper River in Camden County, New Jersey.

Aerial view of the Cooper River in Camden County, New Jersey.

At a time when the Trump administration is rolling back U.S. clean water regulations, New Jersey has stepped up protections on 600 miles of rivers and streams throughout the state.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced this week that it is bestowing so-called “Category One” stream protections on some key waterways, including enhanced pollution controls on a two-mile stretch of the Cooper River in Camden — the first urban waterway in the state to be protected.

A Category One designation is second only to the protections given to streams and rivers in state and national parks, the state DEP said. The designation strictly limits pollution and sewage discharges and creates 300-foot protected landscapes and wildlife habitat along both banks of designated streams. The protections are designed, among other things, to preserve or improve water quality to the point where boating, fishing, and swimming are all possible.

Conservationists praised the administration of Gov. Philip D. Murphy for the new waterway protections, which had languished for years under previous administrations. “In an era when the federal Clean Water Act is under attack, the Murphy administration’s move to strengthen state-level protections is key to making our waterways destinations, not dead zones,” said Doug O’Malley, director of the conservation group Environment New Jersey.

Sandra Meola, director of the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, told Yale e360 that more than 13 million people depend on the Delaware watershed for drinking water and said that New Jersey’s action is critical for protecting regional water supplies from “overdevelopment, climate change, and polluted runoff … at a time when we need to protect clean water and our natural resources more than ever.” Meola noted that the Trump administration has moved to roll back protections under the Waters of the United States Rule, an Obama-era provision that gave protection under the Clean Water Act to a wider range of streams and wetlands.

Among the waterways receiving New Jersey’s Category One protections are the Salem River in southern New Jersey, the South Branch of the Raritan River and the Lamington River in central New Jersey, and the Ramapo River in northern New Jersey. The Ramapo is one of a number of northern New Jersey rivers to be protected in the New Jersey Highlands, a heavily forested and less developed area bordering the Delaware River that supplies water to about two-thirds of the state’s households.

O’Malley said that the expanded protections would further boost New Jersey’s $11 billion-a-year recreation economy and would “save taxpayers billions of dollars in water treatment and flood reduction costs.”

A key goal of applying the Category One designation is to protect waterways before they become too polluted. The state had originally proposed that about 750 miles of waterways be protected under the Category One rule, but the DEP concluded that 150 miles of rivers and streams had become too degraded to be fishable or swimmable in the near-term.

Conservationists said that the enhanced protections given to Camden’s Cooper River were a strong sign that the once-heavily polluted waterway, which flows into the Delaware River, was in the midst of a striking recovery. “This is a magnificent moment for those of us that promote recreation on the Cooper River,” said Don Baugh, president of the Upstream Alliance. “This is a testament that the river has returned to life, teeming with birds and fish.”

The DEP designated the 600 miles of protected waterways after analyzing a host of data on water quality and the environment from the rivers and streams.

—Katherine Bagley and Fen Montaigne