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Headwaters: A Spotter’s Guide

Headwaters come in many shapes and forms. They tumble along local roads, and roll under bridges and through culverts below the pavement. They trickle out of stony crevasses and rock faces. They saturate wet meadows tucked in among rolling hills. Some appear like a herald of Spring, but slowly disappear as Spring turns to Summer. Others lie dormant when the weather is dry, but come to life after a heavy rain storm. Drive in any direction in Northwestern New Jersey, and you might encounter half a dozen headwaters within a couple miles without even realizing it. Early Spring is a great time to spot hidden features in our local landscape. Grasses and leaves lie flat, compacted by winter’s snow, and new shoots and leaves have yet to emerge. If you’re a Headwater Hunter, or want to be, this time of year is for you.

Behind Willy's Wieners, on Route 57 in Warren County, NJ

There are three basic types of headwaters. Perennial headwaters contain water all year round, either flowing (creeks, streams, runs, and brooks) or still (ponds, lakes, and wetlands). They can be easy to spot within the local landscape, and most are named and appear on maps. Yet even in less remote areas, they can be obscured by roads and other structures. Smaller perennial headwaters may be mapped, but not labeled. Some perennial headwaters in the NJ Highlands are not mapped at all.

When looking for intermittent headwaters, timing is everything. They arise around this time of year, when the water table is high and smaller upstream waters are swollen by melted snow and vernal rains. These waters may appear as streams, pools, or wetlands in the Spring, then gradually disappear as the seasons wear on—later, under wet conditions or sooner under dry conditions. Because of their seasonal disappearing act, many of them are unmapped, and most are unnamed.

There are many intermittent headwaters in Northwestern New Jersey, thanks in large part to its unique geology. Our rivers flow through valleys carved from limestone and other carbonate rocks. On the slopes, precipitation and runoff pass through the soil and fill vast networks of stony channels and chambers within the rock. As the volume of water below the surface increases, it pushes up through larger holes to fill headwater streams and pools.

Ephemeral headwaters are fed entirely by precipitation and only appear after a heavy rain fall or with melting snow. In our area, they may appear as channels—trenches cut into the hillside by flowing water—or as sloughs—small, marshy areas that form in undrained depressions or along slow-moving streams in a wetland. These natural features can be miles long and have large drainage areas covering hundreds of acres; they may even have several branches. But even so, they are mostly unmapped.

Whatever from they take—large or small, mapped or unmapped, obvious or overlooked—headwaters are essential to our water system, the environment, and our rural way of life. They sustain and nourish larger downstream waters. They provide crucial habitat for all kinds of wildlife, including treasured game animals and fish. They form a critical first line of defense against dangerous flooding. They provide clean water to local communities and farms throughout the region, and for millions of residents throughout the state.

Be a Headwaters Hero!

The lakes, rivers, and streams of Northwestern New Jersey are among the finest in state—and beyond. Help keep it this way! Visit to learn more about our Great Waters and all that they have to offer, the risks that they face, and what you can do to help protect them. Then, take action! Share your Great Waters story. Sign the petition urging local officials to support greater protections for Great Waters, their headwaters, and the lands that surround them.


This post was written by Jane Heeckt, Project Coordinator for the Great Waters NJ initiative.

The Highlands Region of Northwest New Jersey is home and home-away-from-home to approximately 20 million people who come to enjoy recreating in and around some of the Nation's most prized lakes and streams. These Great Waters, including 3 National Wild & Scenic Rivers, sustain communities, farms, and businesses, and provide a fresh source of drinking water for over 15 million people across the Mid-Atlantic.

Great Waters New Jersey seeks to raise awareness for these precious natural resources through local and statewide advocacy. For more information on the Great Waters NJ initiative, please visit


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