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Hurray for Headwaters! Summer Fun in the Great Waters of New Jersey

Summer is here! As the mercury climbs, thousands of New Jersey residents head out to the Highlands to beat the heat. Some come to hike or camp with their families under the shade of tall trees. But more come out to paddle and splash in the cool, fresh waters of Northwestern New Jersey.

From the sandy shores of Lake Hopatcong to its confluence with the Delaware River, the Musconetcong flows for 42 miles among the lush green hills and shady slopes of Morris, Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon Counties. With 59 public access points, there are many places to launch a boat or river tube, or wade into its refreshing waters – waters kept cool and clear thanks to its upstream headwaters.

The headwaters of the Musconetcong start above Lake Hopatcong in northern New Jersey. This vast network of lesser streams, springs, and wetlands keep water clean, healthy, and flowing strong. These waters may take the form of tiny brooks that emerge from rocky slopes well off the beaten path. They may be springs that bubble up with the melting snow then slowly disappear. Or, small streams that flow freely when the water table is high but shrink into shallow pools when it’s low. They may even appear as marshy meadows nestled among pastures and fields. Some headwaters are not even mapped. But visible or not, headwaters contribute far more to a river and its surrounding environment – and wholesome summer fun – than most people realize.

Larger downstream waters like the Musconetcong are supported by their headwaters in three important ways. They help maintain water volumes and regulate runoff. They filter and dilute harmful pollutants and keep them from reaching dangerous levels. They help maintain sediment at healthy levels.

Pump up (or down) the Volume

Once the mercury begins to rise, water levels begin to fall. But in the Highlands, huge volumes of water emerge from the countless springs that dot the hillsides and are gathered up in myriad small streams. This water finds its way into the Musconetcong and keeps it splashable and boatable even in the dog days of summer.

They play an equally important role in keeping excess water from overwhelming downstream waters during wet periods and from the strong summer storms that frequently lash our region. They intercept excess rainfall, and channel it over a wide area. Their rough and irregular banks effectively reduce water velocity, and help keep it from pouring downstream.

Dilution of Pollution

Nonpoint source pollution—such as fertilizers, household chemicals, and road salt – can easily wash into rivers, and rivers in more developed areas, such as the Musconetcong, are particularly vulnerable. These substances have a detrimental effect on water quality. Road salt and chemicals can kill off the organisms that keep our water clear. Fertilizers can feed algae growth, turning once sparkling waters into a poisonous green soup. And high levels of any toxin are harmful to wade or swim in.

Headwater networks create a web of protection that keep this kind of pollution out of rivers. Streams that are bounded by trees and other natural vegetation trap pollutants and prevent them from flowing directly into downstream waters. The large volumes of clean, fresh water they send downstream can dilute chemicals and other pollutants, and keep them from reaching dangerous levels.

Sedimental Journey

Sediment – the loose particles that settle to bottom of a water body – is a natural part of a river. Whether it is carried by wind or water, sediment is necessary for maintaining the water’s equilibrium.

Headwaters deliver a slow and steady supply of sand, clay, silt, soil, and organic matter to downstream waters. This sediment helps form beaches, spits, sand bars, and estuaries. It supports critical habitat for aquatic plants and animals. It provides healthy levels of vital nutrients and minerals that keep waters thriving.

Too much sediment, however, is harmful to streams and the plants and animals that live there. Suspended sediment makes waters cloudy, and can inhibit plant growth. Excessive silt can bury and suffocate the eggs of fish and other animals. Toxic compounds and harmful bacteria can bind with soil and other sediment particles, and wash into downstream waters, making them unsafe for recreation. Too much sediment can also make rivers too shallow for boating and paddling. By channeling stormwater across a broad area and reducing its velocity, a healthy and intact headwaters network can trap huge amounts of sediment and prevent excess particles from washing downstream.

Be a Headwaters Hero!

Do you love to cool off in the Musconetcong or any of the lakes, rivers, and streams of Northwestern New Jersey? Do you want to keep our Great Waters fresh, clean, and cool for generations to come? 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.

No matter the season, 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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