The Fight to Restore the Rahway River

The Rahway River at 500 Central Avenue. Credit: Darren Tobia.

For generations, the East Branch of the Rahway River was treated as an industrial sewer. It was so reviled that townships buried its waters underneath roadways and other infrastructure. But a group of Orange residents is determined to turn this former dumping ground into a place of natural beauty once again.

Keeping the waterway clean is crucial, because residents that live downstream still get their tap water from the river. “I know people in Rahway and they say when it snows they can taste the salt that people put on the roads,” said Kirk Barrett, president of the Rahway River Watershed Association.

In February, Marty Mayes, Orange’s director of Public Works, revealed a $1 million plan to renovate Metcalf Park that includes a new dog park, a resurfaced tennis court, and enhancements to the public pool. But the river didn’t factor into the presentation.

“We talked about doing something with that area but it’s a big deal,” Mayes told the city council. “It’s going to take a lot more money than we’re requesting and a lot more time to develop it.”

The Friends of Metcalf Park, a local nonprofit, met with Mayes after the presentation and they are waiting to see how their feedback will be incorporated into the final version of the redesign, Kweli Campbell told the Orange Press.

Campbell moved to Orange during the pandemic and decided on a home near Metcalf Park. But the river was full of snags and debris and barricaded with chain-link fence – a far cry from when the park was built a century ago. “There’s so much potential,” said Campbell, who wants to see the waterway become part of a classroom science curriculum. “If you go to other towns, they’ve made this river part of their community.”

For Sharee Harrison, who grew up in Orange, cleaning up the Rahway River was a matter of pride. After learning that the river attracts out-of-town visitors, she got involved in a clean-up effort at the Harvard Printing apartments at 550 Central Avenue, hoping that no one walks away from her hometown with a bad impression.

“You have people that tour the Rahway River,” Harrison said. “I refuse to let people come here and see this.”

The part of the river between Central Avenue and Mitchell Street in the Valley had long been buried under a brownfield. The Alpert group agreed to “sunlight” the river as part of a redevelopment deal – sunlighting is the process of removing those coverings.

A walking path along the Rahway River. Credit: Darren Tobia.

Today, the Harvard Printing apartment buildings have a walking path alongside the open-air stream. It is a vast improvement, but more work is needed. “To have a newly opened up part of the river here in Orange look like that really threw me off,” Harrison said.

Harrison, a project manager for the Orange HUUB, is working on a grant from the River Network. In addition to the clean-up effort in the Valley, Harrison teamed up with Mike Brick, chairman of the West Orange Environmental Commission, to give Saturday walking tours of the river — called Trail Mix — at the South Mountain Reservation, where it cascades over a cliffside and becomes the Hemlock Falls.

Although the East Branch, which passes through the Oranges, is too shallow to support life, farther downstream trout, catfish, and sunfish call the water home. Crane flies and dragonflies live in the water during their larva stage. Herons, egrets, and kingfishers, visit the water to feed on those smaller aquatic species, Barrett said.

The river has come a long way from its industrialized past when it flushed away toxic dyes from the Valley’s hat-making factories. In 1971, a U.S. Army Engineer report deemed the East Branch “too polluted to support life.” It is still stressed, largely because of the sheer amount of water that floods into it during rain and snowfall, Barrett said.

Surfaces like asphalt and concrete cause massive amounts of groundwater to rush into the river, instead of getting absorbed into the earth. “The water travels very fast and comes up high and disturbs the natural habitat,” Barrett said. “It’s hard on the animals that live at the bottom of the river.”

The best way to soften the impact of storms is to line the banks of the river with a “buffer” of native plants to prevent unwanted groundwater from draining into the river, Barrett said.

James Ward, an architect who lives in the city’s Seven Oaks neighborhood, told the Orange Press that the river, which flows through three counties, requires collaboration with other municipalities — and Orange needs to hold up its end of the bargain. “You can’t get one end of the waterway to look beautiful if the upstream isn’t flowing,” Ward said.

Ward believes that being a steward of the river is a matter of thoughtful design more so than funding — like surrounding the public pool with landscaping, instead of concrete. “You don’t want runoff from a chlorinated pool going into the river because it will hurt that system,” Ward said.

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