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Fresh from the Highlands? Pressure on Newark's Drinking Water Spurs Citizen Action

CIVICSTORY // February 8, 2022

When a group of concerned citizens formed the Newark Water Coalition three years ago, their focus was primarily on getting clean drinking water to residents whose water supply was tainted by lead. Elevated levels of the metal, which was leaching from old pipes in the city’s aging water infrastructure, were appearing in blood samples of children. 

Now that nearly all of the city’s lead pipes have been replaced with copper, the coalition is expanding its work to broader issues that threaten people’s access to clean water. Among those is the very source of the city’s water supply: 35,000 acres of forest in the New Jersey Highlands region, which contains rivers, streams, and reservoirs that are a precious source of pure drinking water for more than two-thirds of New Jerseyans – including much of the population of Newark.  

In fact, Newark is the largest landowner in the Highlands, a region the city turned to in the early 1900s as a source for water when cholera and dysentery was spreading widely due to a polluted Passaic River. 

Yet many Newark residents are unaware that their water is drawn from such a faraway and clean source, or that commercial development and logging threaten it. In 2004, New Jersey enacted The Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, setting limits on development in the area, but the Department of Environmental Protection can and does issue waivers for a variety of reasons

“The more you’re educated on this, the more you’re likely to say, ‘I have to stand up for this,’ or share information with other people,” said Anthony Diaz, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, who said the group is brainstorming ways to work with other environmental groups on raising public awareness about the Highlands. “We want to make sure clean drinking water is protected as a human right.” 

Though they may seem worlds apart, the Highlands start just 35 miles from Newark, and what happens there has direct impact on Newark residents. Helping people see that is vital, Diaz noted.

Several other Newark-based groups are working on ways to connect residents to the Highlands. The city offers a summer day camp for kids at Camp Watershed on its Highlands property. Such programs are key for increasing access to the land for residents who rely on public transportation, said Tenisha Malcolm-Wint, director of Cities Programs at The Nature Conservancy, NJ Chapter. 

“There’s a huge gap for residents in Newark, not even knowing these lands exist,” said Malcolm-Wint. She noted that since the preserved space where Newark’s water originates looks “drastically different” from the city itself, “There’s a bit of a disconnect. There is a need for residents to be more involved with policymakers around these efforts.”

United Parks as One, a citywide alliance of neighborhood park and garden groups in Newark, is working on a film about the Highlands to share with community groups around the city. 

“Our goal is to heighten awareness of the area and encourage people to visit the area,” said Executive Director Carla Robinson. “It’s one thing to go to a park in the city, and it’s another to be able to access land…that’s still in this natural state.” 

On the legislative front, the groups are working to strengthen the laws in place to preserve this region, and reduce ongoing exemptions for housing development and logging. There are also concerns about enforcement. Speaking about measures enacted to protect the environment, Diaz said, “Even if you have the right laws on the books, if nobody is enforcing them, then the laws don’t necessarily matter.” 

“There are constant efforts to repeal the legislation or to weaken it,” said Elliott Ruga, policy director of the NJ Highlands Coalition, about laws to protect the environment. The nonprofit is working with other environmental and grassroots groups to raise public awareness about the Highlands and strengthen regulations that protect it. A broad coalition that includes Ruga’s group and The Nature Conservancy, NJ Chapter is also working on a proposal for ensuring green spaces remain in parts of the Highlands that are developed in the future. 

Their efforts come as global warming is making the Highlands even more valuable for capturing carbon, as well as increasing its importance as a throughway for species migrating north in search of more amenable temperatures. The coalition calls the region a “pinch point,” meaning that this narrow habitat that stretches from Warren County to Bergen County and through 332 municipalities is being crowded in on all sides by development. 

 “When you protect forests, it provides carbon storage, water quality, recreational use and economic opportunities,” said Eric Olsen, project manager of the Delaware River and Bay Whole System at The Nature Conservancy, NJ Chapter. “There are so many layers to the value of these habitats.”

“Our priority issue right now is protecting the Highlands core forest,” Ruga added. “It’s the most mature forest we have in New Jersey, and it’s hugely important. There are creatures and plants that don’t exist anywhere else because this forest is so big.”

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