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Hurray for Headwaters!

On February 20, 1962, the United States successfully sent an astronaut into orbit. The five-hour, 66,000-mile spaceflight turned pilot John Glenn into national hero. However, in the movie “Hidden Figures” we learn about the work of three brilliant African-American women who’s enormous—but largely anonymous—contributions ensured the success of Glenn’s flight. They are unsung heroes of the American space program.

Think of headwaters as the unsung heroes of our Great Waters. While rolling rivers, majestic lakes, and rushing creeks capture all the attention, just upstream are the springs, streams, or wetlands that make them possible. Headwaters are all around us, yet they are easy to overlook: tiny brooks that emerge from rocky slopes well off the beaten path; springs that bubble up with the melting snow then slowly disappear; small streams that flow freely when the water table is high but shrink into shallow pools when it’s low; or marshy meadows nestled among pastures and fields. In Northwestern New Jersey, most headwaters are not even mapped. But visible or not, headwaters contribute far more to our water system, the environment, and our rural way of life than most people realize.

In the Musconetcong watershed, headwaters can start small as intermittent streams.

Origin Story

Even the mightiest rivers have humble beginnings. The Delaware River rises from two ponds in upstate New York—so small they aren’t even named. These ponds, and myriad other small waters, feed two tributary rivers for almost 100 miles before the confluence. Like leafy twigs on the boughs of an enormous tree, headwaters nourish and sustain larger waters downstream by:

  • Maintaining water volumes and regulating floodwaters

  • Filtering pollution

  • Keeping sediment and nutrients at healthy levels, and preventing dead zones

Wholesome Habitats

Upstream pools and streams make an attractive home for all kinds of game animals and other wildlife, and offer especially fine habitat for the Highland’s famous trout. Tucked into the landscape and fed from below by temperate groundwater, tranquil headwaters provide ideal:

  • Spawning and nursery areas

  • Seasonal feeding areas and shelter from extreme weather

  • Refuge from predators and competitors

Headwaters and the Water Supply

The Highlands are a critical source of water for local communities and millions of residents across New Jersey. Upstream headwaters keep this water clean, fresh, and flowing strong. All year long--even during drought events--these vast, but largely unnoticed, networks support our public water supply by:

  • Filtering rain, snowmelt, and runoff

  • Ensuring a continuous flow to surface waters,

  • Recharging underground aquifers

More Than Meets the Eye

Headwaters take many forms. Some flow or bubble all year round. Others, such as seasonal or intermittent streams and ephemeral channels, appear only under certain weather and climate conditions. Some headwaters flow hidden just below ground. But visible or not, they form an irreplaceable defense against dangerous flood events for downstream communities. When healthy and intact, headwaters weave secret web of protection that can absorb and redirect an enormous amount of rain, melted snow, and runoff. Channeling this excess volume across a wide area, or allowing it to filter down into groundwater aquifers, helps prevent it from overwhelming downstream rivers and streams.

Be a Headwaters Hero!

Do you live in Northwestern New Jersey, among the precious headwaters that support our Great Waters and provide for—and protect--their downstream communities? Do you love to fish, paddle, and hike along the beautiful waters of the Highlands? Then visit and 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 own Great Waters story. Sign the petition urging local officials to support greater protections for Great Waters, their headwaters, and the lands that surround them.

The lakes, rivers, and streams of Northwestern New Jersey are among the finest in state—and beyond. Help keep it this way!


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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