Raritan River

To Heal a River

With a watershed basin covering more than 1,200 square miles of the Garden State, the Raritan River winds through New Jersey history and holds a special place in Rutgers culture—it’s right there in the title of our alma mater.

But since the days the university was founded “On the Banks of the Old Raritan,” the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the development of railroads and canals, and the rise and decline of local manufacturing helped transform the bucolic, winding Raritan into a center of transport and commerce.

And with that growth and change came decades of dumped waste from industries, sewage, and street runoff, exacting a toll still felt today.

Coordinated Efforts

With the passage of the Clean Water Act nearly 40 years ago, environmental awareness has grown, most direct assaults on the river have abated, and many groups and individuals dedicate themselves to returning the Raritan to its former glory.

Judy ShawBut until 2009, there was no common agenda shared by those groups. That is when Judy Shaw, senior research specialist at Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, and her colleagues helped launch the Sustainable Raritan River Initiative.

“We created the conversation and now serve as a center for communication. We provide a clearinghouse for information and connect environmental and watershed organizations with an interest in river preservation and protection,” says Shaw, who came to New Jersey from the University of Michigan with a background in environmental protection, urban planning, and remediation of contaminated sites.

“It’s work a university can do well, and Rutgers plays a critical role in coordinating the development and implementing a voluntary regional strategy for the Raritan, based on its value as a natural resource and recreational attraction.”

With initial funding from the Mushett Family Foundation, Shaw and her colleagues at Rutgers identified key environmental leaders and reached out to local officials, concerned citizens, and scientific experts and invited them to the first meeting of the initiative in May 2009. “The first time we called folks together, we got 170 people to attend—like that,” she recalls, snapping her fingers. “There was clearly an interest—and a need.”

Taking Action

Today, the initiative benefits from the engagement of more than 90 local organizations, government officials, and businesses, as well as academics and foundations. The group has forged a regional plan for the cleanup and sustainable development of the Raritan River. Among the ongoing, coordinated efforts to restore the river, Shaw and initiative members have:

Morris Goodkind Bridge over the Raritan

  • Developed a plan of action in 2009 to restore habitat, which in turn supported efforts to remove three dams along the lower Raritan and build fish passages to open stretches of the river to fish that have been turned back by the dams of the last century. With the project under way, Shaw is actively consulting with municipalities along the river as issues arise.
  • Helped the city of New Brunswick staff its “green team.” This group of volunteers are local residents appointed by the city and charged with identifying ways to reduce energy usage, fossil fuel reliance, wastewater discharge, and trash as part of New Brunswick’s Sustainable Jersey initiative.
  • Connected volunteers with local grassroots organizations. Groups such as the Edison Wetlands Association, the Raritan Riverkeeper, and the South Branch Watershed Association are still key to restoring and preserving the river—and ensuring that it remains a viable part of the area’s future. These groups are often a great way for citizens to get involved.
  • Encouraged coordination among municipalities when projects have potential for positive impact on each. Middlesex and Somerset county planning and recreation programs are currently considering ways to  extend the common elements of their greenways to Perth Amboy. People from Bound Brook and Bridgewater are working with Pfizer to promote the cleanup of contaminated sites, or brownfields, that passed to the company when it purchased Wyeth.
  • Created and maintain the blueraritan.org website, an online hub tracking efforts across the region from cleanups to kayak trips and serving as a clearinghouse for information on surveys, studies, and plans for the river.

Rutgers Aid

At the university, efforts include a graduate planning studio course, run by Shaw, whose students mapped out within a quarter mile of the river’s banks all locations of municipal outfalls, or storm runoffs, and brownfields contaminated by long ago industries, including a handful of Superfund sites, and targeted by the federal government for special cleanup funding and attention.

In addition, faculty at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS) are engaging students and teaching courses in stormwater management and design, as well as other environmental issues, to create a sustainable Raritan. The Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences recently relocated one of its research ships, the  R.V. Caleta, from Rutgers University Marine Field Station in Tuckerton to enable students and faculty to study the Raritan River and Bay. With support from the Mushett Family Foundation and Edison Wetlands Association, SEBS faculty will investigate the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the river.

These efforts recently earned Rutgers a 2011 regional planning award from Somerset County. Shaw accepted the award on behalf of her colleagues, stating, “This is about the future of our region—a place where our location on the river will be a destination and promote environmental quality and attract economic investment. The region has just begun to tap its potential.”

The Sustainable Raritan River Initiative has been funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, in addition to Rutgers University. Learn more about this initiative by visiting blueraritan.org, or contact blueraritan@ejb.rutgers.edu.

Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is an active partner with each of our host communities. Explore the Rutgers Programs for the Community website to learn about events, programs, and services that bring Rutgers’ resources into the community.