Value of New Jersey’s Freshwater Resources

New Jersey’s wetlands, lakes, and streams are among the most important and environmentally valuable areas in our state. Yet, they are also some of the most threatened areas in New Jersey, owing to the constant pressures of development and sprawl. For example, since the pre-developed era, New Jersey has lost forty-five percent of its wetlands as of the last accounting3, 4. A the same time, streams have been filled or channelized, lakes have become polluted, and groundwater reserves have been depleted – all due to intensive human use and development.

There are a number of ways that community members and local governments can work together to protect their watershed (refer to Local Policy Tools for Protecting Freshwater Resources). But first, it is important to understand how these complex systems create value for communities, and how New Jersey’s legal system works to regulate their protection. Note that the benefits discussed below are in no way an exhaustive list; rather, they represent objective values can be quantified using standard economic models.


Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas with a significant effect on global climates. Wetlands help maintain the atmosphere by storing carbon within their often significant plant biomass. When wetlands are cleared or drained, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, and future carbon storage potential is lost.

Wetlands help improve water quality, including that of drinking water, by trapping dirty runoff from lawns, roads and driveways and filtering out pollutants before they can reach the groundwater or streams. Wetlands filter water by:

  • Removing inorganic nutrients and chemicals (for example, from lawn treatments),
  • Processing organic wastes (such as pet waste), and
  • Capturing grit and sand from paved surfaces.

As runoff water passes through wetlands, the wetlands retain or process excess nitrogen and phosphorus, decompose organic pollutants, and trap grit and sediments that would otherwise damage waterways and make the process of purifying drinking water more difficult. Preserved wetlands can save local governments and utility companies a great deal of money in the long term. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the water filtration and supply services provided by wetlands are worth approximately $4.7 billion per year.1, 2

Because of their low topographic position, wetlands store and slowly release rainwater, snowmelt, groundwater, and flood waters. Trees and other wetland plants slow flood waters and soak up the excess through the process of evapotranspiration. This slowing and soaking up action lowers flood heights and reduces erosion downstream and on nearby properties. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the flood and storm regulation services provided by wetlands are worth approximately $3.8 billion per year.1, 2

In the United States, more than half of all adults regularly engage in outdoor activities, including hunting, fishing, bird watching, and wildlife photography, with significant consumer spending on equipment, travel, accommodation, and more. In New Jersey, wetlands supply critical habitat for many rare species that draw bird watchers and outdoor enthusiasts from around the region.

Open Waters and Riparian Buffers

Streams and lakes perform the vital task of carrying and storing water for the many people who draw their drinking water from surface sources (versus groundwater). Riparian buffers–that is, the vegetated areas adjacent to streams–help to stabilize the banks, filter pollution out of runoff, and keep the water in the stream cool. Additionally, through a complex geometry of fast-flowing “riffles” and slow-moving pools, streams allow debris and sediment to settle out of the water before it reaches drinking water treatment systems, saving water utilities (and consumers) on costly filtration processes. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the water supply services of open waters and riparian buffers are worth approximately $82 million per year1,2 (Note: this estimate does not include the significant value of water as an ecosystem good).

Many streams and lakes offer opportunities for fishing, boating, kayaking, and swimming, which together create significant value both locally and for the regional tourism industry. By modeling home values near water bodies, many studies have found increases in property value associated with close proximity to streams and lakes. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection estimates that the recreational and aesthetic services of open waters and riparian buffers are worth approximately $65 million per year1,2.

State Policy for Protecting Wetlands, Lakes, and Streams

Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act

Freshwater wetlands are governed by New Jersey’s Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act, which aims to identify wetlands and limit development encroachment. The Act acknowledges the following important functions and values of wetlands:

  • Protect and preserve drinking water supplies;
  • Provide a natural means of flood and storm damage protection;
  • Serve as a transition zone between dry land and water courses, thereby limiting soil erosion;
  • Provide essential breeding, spawning, nesting, and wintering habitats for a major portion of the State’s fish and wildlife; and
  • Maintain baseflow to surface waters through the gradual release of stored flood waters and groundwater, especially during drought.

Established in 1987, the Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act expands federal wetland protections (Section 404 of the Clean Water Act) and assigns regulatory authority to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Under this rule, any development within or adjacent to wetlands must apply for a permit. The permit process cannot legally prevent all development activities; rather, it encourages developers to seek alternatives that minimize disturbance.

The Freshwater Wetlands Protection Act has no doubt slowed the rate of wetland loss in New Jersey over the past several decades by reducing the scale of disturbances and encroachments at the individual project level. However, the small disturbances and encroachments that are permitted under the Act have collectively resulted in the loss of an additional 57,000 acres of wetlands since 1986.3

Flood Hazard Area Control Act

Riparian zones (that is, the often-flooded land next to streams and rivers) are governed by New Jersey’s Flood Hazard Area Control Act, which aims to protect properties from flooding and minimize development encroachment next to waterways. The Act acknowledges that “…development within flood hazard areas obstructs and displaces floodwaters, which exacerbates the frequency, intensity, duration, and extent of flooding…”, and goes on to explain how maintaining a vegetated buffer along waterways is essential for not only flood protection, but also for upholding “the ecological balance that is necessary for life.”

Under this rule, the following types of development within or adjacent to a riparian zone must apply for a permit:

  • Alteration of topography through excavation, grading or placement of fill.
  • Clearing, cutting and/or removal of vegetation in a riparian zone.
  • Creation of impervious surface.
  • Storage of unsecured material.
  • Construction, reconstruction, repair, alteration, enlargement, elevation, or removal of a structure.
  • Conversion of a building into a single-family home or duplex, multi-residence building, or critical building.

Riparian zones are defined by their distance from the stream bank–either 50 feet, 150 feet, or 300 feet, depending on the type and quality of the stream. Higher quality or trout-supporting streams are typically given wider riparian zones than lower quality streams.

Local Policy Tools for Protecting Wetlands, Lakes, and Streams

Learn More

Copyright © 2020 The Watershed Institute. All rights reserved.

Site by Scout Digital