Progress on the Paulinskill
It was one of those crystal clear October days. The sun was out
with a light breeze and the fall colors were showing in the tips of leaves as
we entered the floodplain. With his video camera rolling, Todd Leatherman
followed Nathaniel Sadjak as they snaked their way through the waist-high reed canary
grass. Sadjak stopped to examine several recently planted 10-foot trees along
the bank of the Paulinskill River and said, “These look okay here…I think
they’ll make it.”
Documentary filmmaker Leatherman was shooting Sadjak for the first
of three videos on watershed management “best practices” being produced by Open
Space Institute as part of its work protecting watersheds through the Delaware
River Watershed Initiative, funded by the William Penn Foundation. To combat
erosion and sedimentation on lands that have been deforested and overgrazed by
cattle, Sadjack and his partners are planting trees along the bank to help
filter water, limit erosion, absorb flooding and cool the river for fish. Their
strategy is called “floodplain forest restoration.”
Several of us from OSI had joined Leatherman and Sadjak for the
day’s filming, which is following closely behind the Delaware River Watershed film
we recently produced called, A Watershed
Moment. During the day, we got an exciting
overview of the ambitious restoration effort that Sadjack, who is with the
Sussex County Municipal Utilities Authority, is spearheading along the
Paulinskill River in the New Jersey Highlands. He has help from many different partners, including The
Nature Conservancy and many other organizations. In fact, there are now so many partners that
their logos now barely fit onto their promotional map.
Sadjak explained that the Wallkill River Watershed Management Group has planted about 20,000 trees in four years throughout approximately four miles of river corridor, with the help of over 100 volunteers. The project’s impact has
extended beyond the floodplain and into the local community. School groups have
visited the project, which has also sparked the interest of bikers, walkers and
joggers using a trail with views of the floodplain.
The tree planting is part of a larger effort to protect and restore
the Paulinskill River, one of the three major New Jersey tributaries of the
Delaware River. The Nature Conservancy of New Jersey, New
Jersey Audubon, and others are working along the 41-mile river on a range of projects that include land acquisition, dam removals, and
other restoration projects.
Entering the floodplain, we could see areas where the bank was
crumbing into the river from many years of agricultural use. Without trees on its
banks, the river is vulnerable to erosion and a buildup of sediment. It is also
exposed to more sunlight causing the water temperature to increase in summer.
Because of warmer water, the river’s ability to hold dissolved oxygen decreases
and jeopardizes the habitat for cold-water fish such as trout and aquatic invertebrates.
The reforestation that Sadjak has spearheaded will not only reduce
sedimentation and improve groundwater recharge, but also provide shade needed
to keep the river cool.
Sprinkled across the floodplain are biodegradable plastic tubes dug
into the ground and tied around the trunks of trees. They are designed to
prevent voles from getting to the thin trunks of young trees and peeling away
their protective layer, killing them prematurely. Sadjak credits the tubes with
helping the trees to survive along the river banks. Their first attempts at
planting young trees did not fare so well, but investing in trees just a few
years older with thicker trunks has increased survival rates considerably.
Sadjak led us to one of the last stops on our trip through a barely
visible trail in the woods. Holding branches for one another, we finally
reached a southward overlook of the curved river. Leatherman stood looking at
it all and suggested returning in order to get some aerial footage of the river’s
course. From that view, the trees that had been planted in the beginning of
this project were thriving in the floodplain, assisting with shade and the
A short preview of the footage recorded by Leatherman is available here.
Next on our journey was the town of Newton, just north of the
restoration area and home to the headwaters of the river. While the restoration
effort is good for the health of the river regardless of what happens upstream,
its success may be limited by stormwater run-off and the pollutants that wash
off Newtown’s impervious surfaces and into the river. To ensure the success of
their work downstream, Nathaniel and his partners are promoting the use of
green infrastructure in Newtown to reduce stormwater run-off.
We wrapped up our traveling with a visit to Memory Park, where Sadjak
described a pilot project that will address flooding and drainage issues at the
park. Conversations with the local community of Newton have increased local
buy-in and support of the project- several volunteers have even begun planting
trees in the forest behind the park! This coupled with other educational activities
through neighboring schools and property owners are inspiring local residents to
become part of the dialogue.
As we drove back on the highway, Sadjak pointed to a view of the
river framed between a fast food restaurant and shopping mall. It quickly disappeared
behind us, a brief reminder of the green landscape and the healing river that
To restore a river, conservationists often have
to wrestle with overcoming the challenges of historical land and water use. It
requires great creativity and persistence. After a day with people restoring its
floodplain, it is clear there’s no shortage of either on the Paulinskill.
back to top