June 5, 2011
North Jersey mayors race for awareness
By Sachi Fujimori
The well-known horse race that is local politics once a year literally becomes a rush for the finish line on the Oradell Reservoir during the Hackensack Riverkeeper's Mayor's Cup Challenge.
North Jersey mayors heading out Saturday on the annual kayaking challenge on the Oradell Reservoir. Contest observers predicted this year that the returning two-time champion, Westwood Mayor John Birkner, would face tough competition from newcomer Ray Cywinski, the mayor of Demarest. Cywinski, an avid kayaker, claimed a "home water" advantage as the manager of watershed and environmental resources at United Water, the utility that oversees the reservoir.
All this showboating, of course, was in good fun, and for a worthy cause — raising awareness to protect the reservoir, a drinking water source for nearly 1 million residents and the surrounding Hackensack River watershed. The third annual event, founded by the Hackensack Riverkeeper, allows the public an opportunity to paddle on the reservoir and gain a better understanding of the local environment.
The Oradell Reservoir was formed by a dam built on the Hackensack River in 1922.
It is managed by United Water and provides water to 1 million residents of Bergen and Hudson counties.
In 2004, the Oradell Reservoir and the entire upper watershed of the Hackensack River were given Category 1 status, the highest level of state environmental protection. This status establishes a buffer along the waterway to guard against runoff pollution.
The reservoir’s surrounding woodlands provide perches for bald eagles.
As the life-vested mayors and councilmen hit the water in their yellow kayaks, warming up their muscles with short strokes, the trash talking and one-liners had already begun for the crowd of family and fans.
"Why are there targets on the side of my canoe?" said Birkner, aware of his vulnerable position as reigning champion.
The sole female competitor, Oradell Mayor Dianne Didio, whose kayak had floated a few feet ahead of the others, requested that she be allowed to start from the "ladies tee."
After being helped into his kayak on the rocky shore, Haworth Mayor John DeRienzo brandished his secret weapon for a group of onlookers: two plastic water guns.
Getting all the mayors' and council members' kayaks to the starting line was like herding a group of cats, but once achieved, a bullhorn blared to start the race.
Off they glided, their long paddles hitting the water in unison. Demarest's Cywinski, wearing a black baseball cap representing his town, sprinted ahead for an early lead.
Birkner got caught in a pack of mayors as he raced toward the yellow buoys. A spectator on shore commented conspiratorially "the other guys are boxing him in."
Turning the corner, Cywinski kept a strong lead, looking back a few times to check his competition. Sprinting across the finish line, Cywinski raised his paddle in victory.
After all the mayors came to shore, he said with a smile, "Thank you all for being a block to John Birkner."
Birkner, a Democrat, who came in second, pondered the symbolic meaning of his loss to Cywinski, a Republican. "The Democrats haven't been winning many races lately; I hope it's not an indication of what's to come."
He then explained away the feigned rivalry. In fact, these area mayors, he said, "are a close-knit group" who meet on a monthly basis to collaborate on initiatives including a recent stream cleaning to prevent flooding.
At the awards ceremony later, Birkner graciously handed over the trophy — a brown, abstract rendition of a paddler — to its new keeper.
Capt. Bill Sheehan of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, who presided over the awards ceremony, told the crowd why this mayor's battle on the water matters so much: "These are the people who make decisions all year-round. They'll make better decisions when they enjoy it [the watershed]," he said.