Stories

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.

Peter Howell, Dyaami, Nat Sadjak on a bridge over the Peterskill River.
Peter Howell, Dyaami, Nat Sadjak on a bridge over the Peterskill River.
Photo Credit: Dyaami D'Orazio

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 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 sediment level. 

Photo Credit: Dyaami D'Orazio

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 storm water 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 storm water 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 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 we visited.

To restore a river, conservationists often must 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.