When Patti Maslanka, 58, recently noticed the waters at her monitoring site on Cruser Brook had once again turned milky white, she grew increasingly 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.”
Maslanka participates in the StreamWatch program operated by The Watershed Institute where volunteers regularly take water samples and do analysis on the health of area streams and rivers. She makes monthly visits to the same section of Cruser Brook to collect her data.
Using strict scientific practices, she and other SteamWatchers collect data that is valued by the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).
Jim Waltman, executive director of the Watershed, said the StreamWatch volunteers are vital for the organization to remain vigilant about the health of New Jersey waterways.
“Our StreamWatch volunteers are our eyes and ears, who note the health - as well as any changes and pollution - of their monitoring sites,” Waltman says.
Cruser Brook is a tributary in the Pike Run sub-watershed, an area that encompasses the towns of Hillsborough, Montgomery, and Skillman. StreamWatchers like Maslanka, who visit streams in the watershed regularly to take measurements, have compiled data showing that this sub-watershed has suffered steadily declining water health over the past few years.
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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 StreamWatch data shows that Cruser Brook’s impairment is a major contributing factor to the decline in water quality in the Pike Run sub-watershed.
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 wondered about the source of Cruser Brook’s milky white color and declining health.
For years, a quarry operation near Cruser Brook has been blamed for harming the brook with polluted stormwater runoff.
Cruser Brook by Route 601 in Montgomery Township.
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. The business entity operates the quarry under the name of Gibraltar Rock of Belle Mead. 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.
By way of background, all industries must have stormwater permits to be able to discharge the rainwater that falls on their land into nearby streams. These permits should involve regular monitoring to make sure industries aren’t dumping pollution into waterways, but the Watershed’s policy team found that the Gibraltar Quarry has been operating on expired permits for years.
The quarry has proposed building a settling pond to trap the sediment that results from the process of mining rock, but the stream continues to suffer until those measures are implemented. The Silvi Group did not respond to phone calls or emails from The Montgomery News by press time.
Mike Pisauro, director of the Watershed’s policy team, said the Watershed is currently working with officials at NJDEP to resolve this issue and restore the health of the Cruser Brook and the surrounding Pike Run sub-watershed. He said Maslanka’s Cruser Brook data has given his team the evidence it needs to, once again, approach state DEP officials.
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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?”
To join the StreamWatch team to monitor local waterways, contact Watershed Scientist Nik Hansen at email@example.com or at 609.737.3735 x54. The Watershed Institute is a member-supported nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping central New Jersey’s water clean and healthy. It protects and restores water through conservation, advocacy, science, and education. Visit thewatershed.org. ■