Last week the state Department of Environmental Protection added 600 miles of rivers and streams to its Category One regulatory status. This codifies their exceptional ecological, water supply, recreation or fisheries value. It also makes them subject to 300-foot buffers excluding development and stringent water quality standards for any discharge into them.
More waterways meriting and getting this high level of protection is good news for residents of New Jersey, where population density is a constant challenge to the healthy habitat for people and wildlife.
And in this case, the benefits and burdens of environmental protection are distributed pretty evenly around the state, since North Jersey’s geology includes many freshwater streams.
South Jersey already has a big share of the waterways in the state’s highest protection category — Outstanding Natural Resource Waters — thanks to its Pinelands National Reserve.
The DEP had proposed 119 miles of South Jersey rivers and streams for upgrading to Category One, just 16% of the original 750 miles proposed statewide.
In response to public comments and new data, however, the agency dropped more than half of the South Jersey proposal from the upgrade — comprising 64 miles of the 150 miles statewide that the agency determined “no longer meet the definition of exceptional ecological significance.”
It’s good to see any state agency responsive to public concerns and additional information.
But it’s also unfortunate that these waterways in this region are continuing to decline environmentally. Among them are nearly 8 miles of Fishing Creek in Middle and Lower townships, and Westecunk Creek in Little Egg Harbor.
The proposed portions of the Maurice River and its branches in Vineland were found to “no longer meet the supporting factors for an exceptional aquatic community.” That’s especially disappointing since local residents have worked hard to preserve that watershed.
Status upgrades were merited for many other South Jersey waterways. Most are in Salem and Gloucester counties, but also the Old Robbins Branch in Dennis Township and even the Cooper River in Camden.
The additions to Category One rivers and streams, the first in a dozen years, brings its level of protection to 7,400 miles of New Jersey waterways. This is one of the most important methods for preserving what’s best of nature in the Garden State, and the ongoing effort by the DEP is appreciated.