By Michele S. Byers
Here’s a not-too-fun fact: 85 percent of New Jersey’s rivers are considered impaired, in large part because their banks are denuded of vegetation.
Without trees, river banks erode, sediments and contaminants are washed into rivers, and waters become too warm for trout and other aquatic wildlife. Bare riverbanks and floodplains cannot absorb rainfall from heavy storms to prevent downstream flooding.
The Nature Conservancy has been working in New Jersey to re-forest floodplain areas to help improve water quality and habitat conditions through its “Roots for Rivers” tree planting program.
“It’s very important to understand that all the things we do on our land – and the impacts from urban and agricultural land use – directly affect the water we depend on for drinking and recreation,” said Michelle DiBlasio, watershed restoration coordinator for The Nature Conservancy
“Trees play a very important role in protecting our rivers and providing clean water for us and for wildlife,” she added.
In 2015, The Nature Conservancy set a goal of planting 100,000 trees throughout New Jersey’s floodplains in an effort to improve water quality and wildlife habitat.
Its first project was to restore floodplains surrounding the Paulins Kill River, a key Delaware River tributary running through Sussex and Warren counties. So far, more than 42,000 trees and shrubs have been planted along the Paulins Kill.
“The success created tremendous momentum to expand the effort,” says DiBlasio.
Last year, The Nature Conservancy teamed up with the Watershed Institute and Sustainable Jersey. Together, they set up a mini grants program to help government agencies, nonprofit organizations, municipalities and school districts implement their own planting projects on riverside lands with little or no vegetation.
As of this spring, Roots for Rivers has funded 21 restoration projects across the Garden State, including:
• Little Pond Brook in Oakland, Bergen County;
• A stream buffer of the North Branch of the Rancocas Creek at Mill Dam Park and Ironworks Park In Mount Holly, Burlington County;
• Wetlands along the Maurice River and Blackwater Branch in Vineland, Cumberland County;
• A stream buffer along the East Branch of the Rahway River in South Orange, Essex County;
• Floodplain along the South Branch of the Raritan River in High Bridge, Hunterdon County;
• Sunset Lake in Sunset Park in Asbury Park, Monmouth County;
• A stream corridor at the headwaters of the Passaic River in Bernardsville Borough, Somerset County;
• A floodplain along the Rahway River in Springfield Township, Union County.
The Roots for Rivers program pays for native tree saplings and shrubs, along with stakes and plastic tubes to protect tender trunks from wildlife damage. The labor – all those holes that must be dug – comes from community volunteers.
Once completed, the new streamside buffers will provide shade to cool the water, a root system to stabilize stream banks and filter out pollutants, and extra storage for flood waters. The restored floodplains will also supply food and habitat for a diversity of wildlife.
By the end of this planting season, there will be more than 65,000 trees and shrubs planted along the Paulins Kill and throughout the rest of the state.
Is there a floodplain on public land near you that needs reforestation? Consider asking your town, county or school district to apply for the next round of Roots for Rivers funding this fall.
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org