THE HACKENSACK RIVER: A True Come-Back Story

 

As rivers go, the Hackensack is certainly one of the world’s smallest (only 50 miles long) and one of its most urban (nearly 20 million people live within a short drive or train ride from its banks), but it is a river steeped in history.

 

The process that eventually formed the river began some 15,000 years ago when a finger of the Wisconsin Glacier retreated, scouring and compressing bedrock to form what paleontologists have named Glacial Lake Hackensack. Not long after this major geologic event, the first humans arrived along the shores of the lake, joining wooly mammoths, giant sloths, saber-toothed cats and six-foot tall prehistoric beavers in this fertile, ice-free wilderness. 

 

As the millennia passed, much of the compressed bedrock slowly rose up out of the lake much like a pillow does after you press down upon it with your hand; for a little while the impression of your hand remains but soon it is gone. What rose up out of the lake became the Hackensack River watershed. Over time, the watershed assumed the shape we recognize today: bounded on the north by the High Tor Mountains, the east by the Palisades, the west by the Watchung foothills and the south by Newark Bay. 

 

Over those same millennia, various plant communities took their turns as the dominant species within the watershed. This botanical evolution culminated by the 17th century with an immense marshy forest of tamarack and Atlantic white cedar that covered most of the lands along the river. 

 

  During the same time period, the humans living here made a good life for themselves, taking from the waters, forests and meadows what they needed to survive and thrive. No longer the wandering Stone Age hunters of old, the Lenape people knew exactly where they were; they were home in their own land, the land they called Lenapakoking whose river they called Atchensehaky – the “River of Many Bends.”  

 

Europeans first sailed up the river they renamed Hackensack in the early 1600s. After their arrival, Dutch (and later English) colonists created a prosperous European enclave that soon pushed the Lenape out of the place they had lived for thousands of years. The rivers and tributaries that had once known only the paddling of dugout canoes soon saw a thriving commercial boat trade that lured pirates who took advantage of the concealing forests to base their attacks. The British thought they'd take care of these marauders by setting fire to the tamaracks and cedars. Of course, this did not rid the area of pirates, but it did make short order of a good bit of the forest.

 

By the late 1700s, the population had grown steadily around the ports of New York and Newark. Soon river traffic was joined by road traffic that required the construction of dozens of drawbridges spanning the Hackensack River. Before long, railroads began to crisscross even the formerly impenetrable marsh now know as the New Jersey Meadowlands. At that time, the region’s population was growing at a breakneck pace. Unfortunately, this growing population turned to the Hackensack and other waterways of the region as a place to dispose of the waste they generated. Waterborne diseases became rampant as the waters became repositories for all sorts of filth.

 

With population also came new demands for drinking water and in 1869 the Hackensack Water Company was founded to supply water directly from the river to Hudson and eastern Bergen Counties via a network of pipes. By 1882, the company constructed a filtration plant on Van Buskirk Island in Oradell to remove the sediments and other debris that often clouded their product. This “river-to-consumer” system was flawed since during times of drought, demand for water nearly drained the river dry.

 

By the end of World War One, the water company could no longer meet the water demands of the still-growing population within its service area. A reservoir was needed. On the company’s behalf, the state of New Jersey began condemnation proceedings against landowners along the upper reaches of the Hackensack River in order to acquire their property.  In 1921, construction of the Oradell Dam was begun and completed two years later, creating the Oradell Reservoir. Eventually, three more reservoirs were dug to satisfy the ever-increasing need.

 

 Today the Hackensack Water Company is no more and it is United Water New Jersey that provides water to over one million people from the river’s upper watershed – one of the most urbanized drinking water resources in America. With very little forested buffer lands remaining, Oradell Reservoir, Woodcliff Lake, Lake Tappan and Lake DeForest are ringed by golf courses, residential subdivisions, major roadways and other development – much of it built with the blessing of the water company. In 1989, United Water dedicated a new, state-of-the art water treatment facility to counteract the polluted runoff entering the reservoirs. Today the question is: How long will that facility remain effective?

 

Harnessing the Hackensack’s upper watershed did something else in addition to providing drinking water: it effectively created two rivers, a freshwater ecosystem above the Oradell Dam and a brackish water estuary below it.

 

The lower reaches of the river suffered tremendous degradation during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries. From the city of Hackensack south to Newark Bay, factories spewed untold gallons of untreated waste into the river. Raw sewage and refuse of all kinds were dumped in and near the river. This toxic legacy has left hotspots of chromium, PCBs, mercury and other contaminants throughout the river’s ecosystem.

 

The most dramatic feature of the Hackensack’s lower watershed is, without question, the New Jersey Meadowlands.  At one time stretching over 32 square miles and encompassing nearly 25,000 acres of wetlands and waterways, the Meadowlands has been reduced to only a third of its former size. From the moment the first European colonist landed, the days of the Meadowlands were numbered and the landscape began to change dramatically. First came logging, then ditching, diking and draining of the marshes to try and “reclaim” the “noxious swamps” for farm and pasture land. Later, towns like Moonachie and Little Ferry were founded on lands that at one time were wetlands.

 

The biggest change that befell the Meadowlands however happened seven miles north of it – the Oradell Dam. Until it was built, the Hackensack River flowed clear and fresh for almost its entire length. Its strong and steady flow kept the salty waters of Newark Bay from intruding more than a couple of miles upstream. In one fell swoop, an ecosystem that had evolved for 15 millennia as a freshwater lowland forest was transformed into a tidal estuary. For the plants and many of the creatures that lived there, there was hell to pay.

 

The abrupt and unnatural change in the river’s water chemistry eradicated the few surviving stands of tamarack and white cedar that had been spared the axe. Freshwater fish like small mouth bass and chain pickerel could not survive. Cattails, wild rice and other freshwater wetlands plants were also killed off and, by the 1940s, common reed (Phragmites communis) became the dominant plant species in the Meadowlands. Coupled with centuries-long attempts to drain it, the Meadowlands appeared as if it were dying.

 

It was during this same time that the Meadowlands was transformed into a regional garbage dump. Garbage trucks from scores of municipalities and even Erie Railroad hopper cars filled with trash were unloaded into the wetlands. Today we can count 34 historic dumpsites. On several of them, fires would spontaneously combust and some would burn underground for years. Smoke from these burning heaps choked the skies and further fouled the waters.

 

By the early 1970s however, things began to change – both for the better, and again for the worse. First the better:

 

·      After the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, the river’s downward spiral was arrested as federal and state regulations began to take effect. Towns were forced to treat their sewage. Changes in the region’s economic base also benefited the river as polluting industries were replaced by non-polluting service and information technology businesses.

 

Now the worse:

·      As the river got cleaner, sprawl development took over as the major villain in the race to kill the Hackensack River. The new economic base devoured wetlands at a breakneck pace as warehouse complexes; hotels, office buildings and entertainment venues were built on hundreds of acres of fill.

 

Now a combination: 

·      In 1970 the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission (HMDC) was created by the State of New Jersey to serve as the zoning authority for the Meadowlands District. It was charged to regulate (and eventually stop) the flow of solid waste into the District, implement environmental regulations and to provide for “orderly development.” While their first two charges were beneficial to the river, the last one was problematic because it put the HMDC “in the business” of destroying wetlands.

 

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the conservation community in New Jersey had begun to take notice of issues involving the Hackensack River – both in the Meadowlands and in the upper watershed. Local advocacy groups were founded to fight for environmental preservation and to ensure public input. Organizations like the Quality of Life Coalition in Secaucus and Bergen SWAN in Westwood were instrumental in stopping improper development on hundreds of acres in the watershed. The two “big dogs” of the watershed – United Water and the HMDC – started to feel the heat.

 

It was into this mix that a cabdriver named Bill Sheehan decided to do something. Beginning as a volunteer with New York/New Jersey Baykeeper’s Boating Auxiliary, he founded the Hackensack Estuary and River Tenders Corp. (H.E.A.R.T.) in 1994 to help keep an eye on the river. After attending the 1997 Waterkeeper Alliance Conference as a guest of Baykeeper Andrew Willner, he was asked by Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to submit a proposal for the creation of a Hackensack Riverkeeper program. The proposal was approved and that same year, Bill founded and became executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper, Inc. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

“This organization was founded on one simple premise: Human beings, in fact all living creatures, have an inherent right to clean water,” Capt. Bill explains. Today, the remaining 8,400 wetlands acres of the Meadowlands have been rezoned for conservation under the new Master Plan that was enacted in February 2004. As a result of advocacy efforts by Hackensack Riverkeeper working in cooperation with the Governor and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey has extended Category One protections to Oradell Reservoir, Lake Tappan, Woodcliff Lake and the entire upper watershed of the Hackensack River. This designation protects the drinking water supply to nearly 1 million people in New Jersey and New York. 

 

Despite these recent conservation victories, our work is hardly over. Given that our staff of five and dedicated cadre of more than 300 volunteers reside in the most densely populated spot in America, the work continues. Through our Eco-Programs and public outreach, close to 10,000 people each year receive an up-close and personal experience of the Hackensack River. We distribute nearly 60,000 copies of Hackensack Tidelines each year. We coordinate numerous river clean-ups and riparian restorations and our Watershed Watch Hotline (1-877-CPT-BILL) is always open.

 

Most importantly, Hackensack Riverkeeper continues to build coalitions to combat urban environmental pollution and to make the polluters pay to clean up the messes they’ve made. We instigate investigations and provide testimony in cases brought against corporate polluters. We were instrumental in turning the HMDC into the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC) and redirecting it to become a conservation-driven agency. We helped stop the loss of forested buffers that United Water allowed in the 1980s and 1990s and are working with the utility to promote our state’s Phase Two Stormwater Regulations and implement the Category One protections.

 

  After all, people not only deserve clean water, they want clean water. And open space protection. And a Meadowlands Preserve. And we’re on the job to help turn those wants into realities.

 

While we certainly celebrate our recent victories, we also understand that winners write history. For far too long, the “winners” in our watershed were the polluters and sprawl developers but today, the tide as finally turned. The people of the watershed have been empowered to be the stewards of their river and it is they who are writing the next chapters of its history. Now, that’s something to celebrate.