A History of the Hackensack River
A True Come-Back Story
Editor’s Note: In honor of Captain Bill Sheehan’s being named a 2004 River Hero (see page 1), River Network posted this article on its eStream newsletter. For more information, go to www.rivernetwork.org.
Hackensack Riverkeeper got its start in the late ‘90s after Bill Sheehan decided he would become a river activist to wrestle the Hackensack River back from industry and development. Taking on an advocacy role for a 32-mile river that winds its choked course within a few miles of 20 million people may have seemed a losing battle. In fact, there were many in and out of government and industry who had written off the Hackensack River years ago.
Human history in the past 100 years has not been kind to this river, as a 30-minute conversation or eco-cruise with Captain Bill Sheehan will quickly reveal. The river was formed when a finger of the Wisconsin Glacier retreated, scouring and compressing bedrock to form the river valley. Soon after, the first Native Americans joined wooly mammoths and six-foot long beavers in a marshy tamarack and white cedar forest. With the arrival of Europeans, boat trade began on the rivers which 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 place. Of course, this did not rid the area of pirates, but it did make short order of most of the trees.
In the late 1700s, the population began to explode around the inland port towns of New York and Newark. Soon after, the river trade turned to road trade with dozens of drawbridges spanning the Hackensack River. Before long, rail trade routes began to crisscross the Meadowlands and population was growing at a breakneck pace. Waterborne disease was rampant as the river became a depository for wastes of all kinds.
With population came new demands for ground water and the Hackensack Water Company was formed. A network of pipes was pressed into service and very nearly drained the river dry. In 1922, the Oradell Dam was completed that cut the river in half, fresh water above in a reservoir to contain a water supply, brackish water below. This was followed by another three reservoirs as population grew to over a million residents, all dependent on the Hackensack River for its drinking water.
The landscape of the Meadowlands changed dramatically in the past century. The tamarack and white cedar trees were eradicated. The opportunistic common reed became the dominant plant species and, in the 1940s and 1950s, the Meadowlands was transformed into regional garbage dumps where Erie Railroad hopper cars filled with trash were unloaded into the wetlands. Smoke from these burning heaps choked the skies and further fouled the waters. Fires would spontaneously combust and some would burn underground for five years or more.
"Perhaps the most important things to understand about any commitment you make to a river are these: Your life will be challenged and enriched beyond your understanding, nothing else you do in life - short of raising a child - will seem as important, and your relationship to the planet will take on an intimacy and richness that will color your vision for the rest of your days."
-David M. Bolling, Author, How to Save a River, Island Press, www.rivernetwork.org
After the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, towns were forced to begin treating their sewage. By this time, however, sprawl development had far outpaced any other villain in the race to kill the Hackensack River. Industries, race tracks, sports stadiums, warehouses all were built on fill that used to be estuarial wetlands.
In the early 1990s, along came Bill Sheehan as a volunteer for the New York/New Jersey Baykeeper and the founder of the Hackensack Estuary and River Tenders (H.E.A.R.T.). In 1997, he founded and became executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper.
“This organization was founded on one simple premise: Human beings, in fact all living creatures, have an inherent right to clean water,” Sheehan explains. Today, the remaining 8,400 wetland acres of the Meadowlands have been rezoned for conservation. As a result of advocacy efforts by Hackensack Riverkeeper in working closely with the Governor and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, New Jersey has extended Category One protections to Lake Tappan, Woodcliff Lake and the drainages of the Hackensack River, Pascack Brook and their tributaries. This designation protects the drinking water supply to nearly 1 million people in our watershed.
The organization’s work is hardly over in spite of these recent conservation victories. Given that the staff of five and more than 300 volunteers live in the most densely populated spot in the United States, the work continues. The organization maintains an ambitious Eco-Cruise program with two pontoon boats and a fleet of canoes and kayaks. (Approximately 5,000 people experienced the Hackensack River and the Meadowlands with HRI in 2003). It staffs a citizens' pollution reporting hotline (877-CPT-BILL). It coordinates numerous river clean-ups and riparian restorations. It facilitates the dissemination of public information around water quality and fish/crab contaminations. It continues to build coalitions to combat urban environmental pollution and instigates investigations and provides testimony in cases brought against polluters such as Occidental Chemical (producers of Agent Orange) and Honeywell International (whose 32-acre property on the Hackensack River is contaminated with hexavalent chromium).
Hackensack Riverkeeper, while enjoying its recent victories, is working to meet ongoing challenges threatening our right to clean water. Among our 2004 objectives:
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