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Rebirth Of A River; Down the River From Rockland to Newark Bay Dam Divides Two Waterways

By Tina Traster

August 27, 1997 -- There are two Hackensack Rivers.

One is the freshwater stream that flows from the High Tor mountains in Rockland County and runs through one reservoir and four lakes that supply drinking water to 750,000 residents in Bergen and Hudson counties.

The other, the tidal portion, wends south from the Oradell dam, passes through a pastoral stretch near River Edge, and then becomes an urbanized waterway that empties into Newark Bay, also the mouth of the Passaic River.

The Hackensack has served as a source for drinking water since the 1800s, but nothing has changed the character of the river more than the Oradell dam.

The Hackensack Water Co., predecessor of United Water New Jersey, built its first pumping station in Oradell in 1881, and the company finished the 1.6-billion-gallon reservoir in 1921, using dredging methods learned in the construction of the Panama Canal. Boats were banned and fishing was curbed on the reservoir.

As a result, Robert Hague, 81, of Oradell, slowly lost touch with the river.

Hague, whose grandfather ran a mill on the river in the 1880s, said he used to visit the river's "dunes," for picnics, and skated on the reservoir.

"The river was cut off gradually," he recalled, "It was a God-given right, and that disappeared."

From the Oradell dam north to the Rockland County border, the river is mostly reserved for the water company's drinking supply. But surrounding the river are hundreds of acres of pristine woodland buffer.

Residents in River Vale and Emerson are fighting plans to build luxury housing on dozens of acres of watershed land.

The three-mile span of river from Lake De Forest to Lake Tappan is the Hackensack's hidden jewel.

Just north of Lake Tappan, a narrow, weedy trail on the eastern bank leads hikers to a slice of river that resembles a bayou. Lily pads dapple the surface, and tree stumps poke through and arch over the banks. A great egret skates across the river looking for fish, while a swan inches along.

South of the Oradell dam, the river zigzags around Van Buskirk Island and curls through a lush swath of forest along River Edge and New Milford, where the banks are steep and the stream is shaded by weeping willows and sycamores. Wild grapevines dangle like jewels on a chain.

Just a little farther south is Historic New Bridge Landing, where the river looks much as it did two centuries ago.

A two-story stone house that was built in 1737 belonged to Jan Zabriskie, a British loyalist. Today, the house is a museum.

"This is a fragment of the Jersey Dutch countryside, where the sounds and lights of suburban life never intrude," said Kevin Wright, the museum curator.

"School kids come here, and they don't know this is the Hackensack," said Wright, who raised three children in the house." They think it's the Hudson, or a lake, or I've even heard the Mississippi.

People don't have any sense of place or continuity."

South of River Edge, the Hackensack becomes an urban estuary, dotted with old factories, generating stations, sewage treatment plants, warehouses, and the razor-wire fencing of the Bergen County Jail.

History and modernity alternate along the river's banks. Passing traffic roars from Routes 80 and 4, and oil storage tanks stand like sentries, but there are small fistfuls of nature.

The Bergen County Courthouse hulks from the west bank. Docked in the river is the Ling submarine, which was launched in 1943 and commissioned two years later, barely in time for one patrol in the Atlantic before war's end.

A curious reminder of grander times along the river is the Hackensack Yacht Club, circa 1910, which once was host to grand regattas, but now only stores boats. Commodore Terry Geoghegan says the river's high siltation and impassable water are putting boating clubs out of business.

Heading south past Ridgefield Park and Little Ferry, the river becomes stark and spare. It is mostly invisible to commuters who cross the river's bridges and the New Jersey Turnpike. Industry and commercial fishing no longer depend upon it.

With some exceptions. Every day at 4:30 a.m., from May through September, Ken Halvorsen and two other fishermen come to a dock in Carlstadt to catch killifish, used as live bait for fluke.

Halvorsen, who owns Kenny's Live Bait in Millstone Township in Monmouth County, says the river looks cleaner now than it did a decade ago.

"The water's not as oily," he said." There used to be a lot more debris in it. And I have not seen a dead body in at least 10 years."

Downstream from Carlstadt, it is possible to escape some of the urban bleakness. On a recent morning at sunrise, Don Smith, senior naturalist with the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission, plowed a pontoon boat along Kingsland Creek. The boat drifted through a canyon of reeds, where great blue herons, least terns, and cormorants begin chirping.

"This is like a town where people are waking up slowly," said Smith.

"Just like in a town, where a door closes or a dog barks, the critters start twittering. The tempo builds. You can feel the pulse of life."

Smith steers into the Saw Mill Creek Wildlife Management Area, a 1,000-acre marsh preserve that seems miles from the cacophony of honking horns on the turnpike, or from Manhattan, which hangs in the background through a filmy haze.

A clear morning light bounces off wooden pilings and puffs of cord grass. Some cormorants fish for breakfast. The blissful peace is briefly interrupted when the smell of garbage wafts down from the Kearny landfill.

Smith, who grew up on the river, celebrates its comeback and hopes to see continued improvement.

"Always listen to the land," said Smith. "It's always speaking.

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Once a week, Vito Brucculeri and his 9-year-old son trek across slurpy mud flats along the Hackensack River and trawl for crabs. They rise early and perch under the eastern spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, near Snake Hill in Secaucus. These days, they count on hauling in a night's dinner.

"Three years back, there were no fish," said Brucculeri, pulling up a mesh net with three lively crabs. "Now there are buckets of this stuff. It's unbelievable."

Officials warn that the crabs are too contaminated to eat. But Brucculeri doesn't worry. He says the river is getting cleaner, adding: "I haven't died yet." From the northern headwaters of the 32-mile, chocolate- brown Hackensack River in Rockland County to the urban bends in central Bergen County, to the marshy wetlands in Carlstadt and Kearny, to the river's mouth on Newark Bay, blueprints are being designed to reclaim the resource.

At new parks, such as the award-winning 31-acre Hackensack River County Park behind Riverside Square mall in Hackensack and the recently opened park and boat launch at Snake Hill, people are once again communing with a river they had forgotten.

In West Nyack, N.Y., plans are afoot to clean up a 2.5-mile, garbage-choked ribbon of the river and create a wildlife sanctuary, boat launch, and footpath with $ 2 million donated by a developer building a mall nearby.

"You have to bushwhack your way through weeds and poison ivy to get down to the river," said Charles Holbrook, supervisor for the town of Clarkstown, which includes West Nyack. "It's really invisible. For people to become a steward for the river, they have to know it's here."

Since the 1950s, most residents of Bergen, Hudson, and Rockland counties spurned the turbid Hackensack, perceiving the Oradell dam and northern stretches as inaccessible water supplies, and the southern portion as a dirty brown sliver crisscrossed by railway bridges and highways.

Through the resilience of nature, and a reduction in discharges of toxic chemicals and raw sewage since the passage of the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972, the Hackensack once again brims with fish, hawks have returned, and shorebirds are more varied and plentiful. The stench of industrial effluent that once permeated the banks is gone. However, raw sewage still flows into the river after major rainstorms because older towns have primitive sewer systems that combine wastewater and storm drainage.

Environmentalists say the Hackensack River needs a "Field of Dreams," philosophy. If people have access to the river, they will return.

Since 1992, requests for fishing permits in the reservoirs and lakes in New York and New Jersey have tripled, from 3,000 to nearly 10,000. The number of visitors to the Hackensack Meadowland Development Commission's nature center in Carlstadt has increased by 25 percent in the past five years.

"You have to get people to the water's edge to get them to learn to love the river," said Bill Sheehan of Secaucus, designated the official river keeper by a national environmental group. Three years ago, Sheehan became a volunteer for New York-New Jersey Baykeeper, reporting environmental misconduct and violations. He also runs ecological tours on the river.

The efforts locally mirror those nationwide to rediscover urban rivers.

The river has been transformed in the last three decades by a combination of natural regeneration and human initiative. Stricter environmental laws combined with the decline of industry have been most responsible for improvements. But state officials prohibit swimming along the entire length of the river because it is laden with bacteria.

The river has a long way to go. In 1996, a Washington-based conservation group declared the Hackensack one of the 30 most threatened waterways in the nation. Illegal polluters still violate the waters.

Toxins seep into the river from seven former landfills and hazardous waste sites. It is not safe to eat fish caught in the lower reaches.

During hot spells, dead fish litter the river because oxygen levels are too low.

Developments that fill wetlands, a natural filter for pollution from streets and lawns, remain a threat to the ecosystem.

Environmentalists oppose plans to fill nearly 700 acres of wetlands in the Meadowlands that surround the river, including a proposal by the Mills Corp. of Arlington, Va., to fill more than 206 acres to build a 2.1 million-square-foot mall.

The regional debate over a zoning document for the Meadowlands remaining 8,000 acres of wetlands has drawn attention of federal environmental advisers, because, if adopted, the planning tool could be used as a model for planning.

"The river is not that bad in the upper reaches, but it is very severely impaired south of the Oradell dam, "said Kevin Berry, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Richard Henning, a spokesman for the United Water New Jersey, which issues fishing permits for its Hackensack-fed lakes and reservoirs, said it is safe to eat fish from the reservoirs and lakes and the Pascack Brook, a tributary.

But sale and consumption of striped bass and bluefish are prohibited from the lower tidal portion of the river, where the silt and water still contain cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and dioxins. Other contaminants found there are arsenic, mercury, lead, zinc, and nickel.

Still highly contaminated is Berry's Creek, which flows along the western edge of the Meadowlands Sports Complex and into the Hackensack River in East Rutherford. The creek is contaminated with mercury, PCBs, heavy metals, and a host of other chemicals, the residue of years of dumping by chemical companies, including a former mercury plant. Dumping has stopped, but the creek remains one of the most polluted waterways in the state.

Until 1996, the Public Service Electric and Gas Co.'s Ridgefield power plant poured millions of gallons of heated water in to the river each day, robbing it of oxygen. But a new cooling system at the plant has led to improvements in oxygen levels.

Thirty years ago, the Hackensack River reeked of raw sewage and toxic chemical discharges. Fish and wildlife disappeared.

The river's health has been improving since the passage of the Federal Clean Water Act in 1972 reduced discharge of toxic chemicals and raw sewage. Fish are more abundant, and many shorebirds have returned.

Now, efforts are afoot to bring people back to the river.

There are plans to create a contiguous three-mile path from Little Ferry to River Edge. So far, nearly a mile of riverfront access has been built in Hackensack, from the Pep Boys Automotive Supercenter to the Department of Public Works building. Pathways are planned next to the ShopRite supermarket being built on River Street and the Bergen County Jail Annex.

A 22-mile pathway is under construction in the 32-square-mile Meadowlands district in southern Bergen and northern Hudson counties.

Bergen County officials are considering a plan to create a nature preserve with river access and establish a historical center on Van Buskirk Island in Oradell. The island, near Elm Street and New Milford Avenue, was once home to a water pumping plant. United Water New Jersey donated the site to the county.

More people are fishing, birding, and hiking in and around United Water's land, which encircles Lake De Forest, the Oradell Reservoir, Lake Tappan, and Woodcliff Lake. Now, there is access for disabled anglers at two lakes.

Membership in the river's two boating clubs is soaring, and nautical groups will sponsor the Sixth Annual Hackensack River Festival on Sept. 6..

Teachers are using the Hackensack River as a classroom, visiting its waters and banks with students to teach science, history, and geography.

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