When Patti Maslanka, 58, recently noticed the waters at her StreamWatch site on Cruser Brook had once again turned milky white, she was concerned.
“This spring, the stream was the best I had ever seen. I could literally see the bottom of the stream bed and rocks there for the first time,” she said. “I had never seen the water this clear and thought maybe there had been changes and the stream was really thriving and could actually support life.”
But by early summer, she said, “the stream was horrible. The water levels were terrible, the water had turned to milky color, the pH and turbidity levels were awful, as were the oxygen and nitrates.”
Cruser Brook is a tributary in the Pike Run subwatershed, an area that encompasses the towns of Hillsborough, Montgomery and Skillman in central New Jersey. StreamWatchers like Maslanka and Justin Huffman, who also monitors this area, visit streams in the watershed regularly to take measurements. This subwatershed has suffered steadily declining water health according to our StreamWatch water quality indicators over the past few years.
Since our last report in 2016, there has been a marked increase in nitrates and phosphates as well as pH, and a corresponding decrease in dissolved oxygen, which is essential for life in the stream.
Analysis of our data shows that Cruser Brook’s impairment is a major contributing factor to this decline in water quality in the Pike Run subwatershed. Maslanka, a veterinarian who has monitored the brook for about nine years with members of her family, said she’s never seen wildlife in Cruser Brook, such as fish or turtles, but conditions appear to be getting worse. She said StreamWatchers know their streams, and Cruser Brook usually has a pH of 6.9 or 7. The last measurement she made registered a pH of 8! She wonders what is the source of the Brook’s milky white color and declining health?
By way of background, turbidity, or cloudiness, is a measure of the sedimentation that causes the water to turn white and milky. Excessive amounts of sediment, or fine particles of dirt, enter the stream and cause unnaturally high levels of nitrates and phosphates. The sediment can also clog and irritate the gills of animals, and trap heat and prevent oxygen from dissolving in the water, further preventing stream life from getting adequate amounts of oxygen. The type of sediment can have an impact on the water’s pH as well.
The data that these and other StreamWatchers share with The Watershed Institute sometimes prompts calls by the Watershed’s policy team to state environmental officials or to local municipalities to redress issues. In the case of Cruser Brook, Maslanka’s observations have led the Watershed to search for possible causes of turbidity upstream.
For years, a quarry operation near Cruser Brook has been blamed for harming the brook with polluted stormwater runoff. In 2003, 3M agreed to pay NJDEP nearly $100,000 to settle numerous violations for illegal stormwater discharges from the quarry and related issues. The company implemented several measures to address the runoff problem, but those have proven to be insufficient.
In 2009, 3M sold the quarry to the Silvi Group of Fairless Hills, PA, which operates the quarry under the name of Gibraltar Rock. Based on Maslanka’s observations and investigations by The Watershed Institute’s policy team, there are sufficient grounds to believe that Gibraltar Rock is in violation of the state’s stormwater rules.
The quarry has proposed new measures to address the problem, but the stream continues to suffer. Mike Pisauro, director of the Watershed’s policy team, is currently working with officials at NJDEP to resolve this issue and restore the health of the Cruser Brook and surrounding Pike Run sub-watershed. He said Maslanka’s Cruser Brook data has provided his team with critical evidence.
Maslanka said remaining vigilant about the region’s waterways is essential for protecting the environment. “I am just one person in a network of volunteers and somebody has to be looking,” she said. “If nobody is watching, who is going to protect this stream and protect our water?”
Many thanks to Mara Cige, Justin Huffman, Sahana Kannan, the Maslanka family, Lily and Yuchen Qiu, and Jane Wang. The Watershed StreamWatch program is funded by Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc, Colgate Palmolive Company, and the New Jersey Water Supply Authority.