A Conservation Battle for Mountain Lakes and the Tourne Park
(Excerpted from the Borough site.)
In the late 1960’s the quality of the Rockaway River below the Jersey City Reservoir began to deteriorate badly. In those days, responsibility for management of that section of the river belonged to Jersey City. Unfortunately they appeared to have little interest in the river and during the summer drew so much water out to keep their reservoir high that the flow slowed to a trickle.
What made matters worse, because of the lack of a modern sewer system, the “trickle” was often brown and disgusting! The odor in Lake Hiawatha was frequently repugnant and it was often said apocryphally that it caused the paint to peel from the doors.
Complaints to Jersey City were to no avail and recourse was sought in the courts. After several years of litigation, the courts found for the plaintiffs and responsibility for management of the river was removed from Jersey City and given to a new entity, the Rockaway Valley Regional Sewer Authority (RVRSA). The RVRSA became responsible for the entire 130 sq. mi. of the Rockaway River watershed.
The Plan: Build a Storage Reservoir on Part of Mountain Lakes
The RVRSA immediately began working on a plan to build a large new modern sewage treatment plant below the Jersey City Reservoir. A gravity interceptor running from Wharton and serving all of Rockaway Valley would collect sewage to be treated at the single proposed plant.
The plan proposed a pumped storage reservoir upriver from the Jersey City Reservoir. Such a storage reservoir could be filled in the rainy season and pumped back out into the Rockaway River during the summer when the flow was low and the downstream cities needed water. The river flow in the lower Rockaway could be augmented and more easily managed.
The Tourne was chosen as the location of this reservoir. It was low-lying, could easily be dammed and was deemed to be of low value.
This idea was not exactly new. Something like it had been in Morris County Master Plan Water Supply Element for several years. The RVRSA decided to resurrect and expand this idea for their purposes. They engaged the services of Killam Associates, a local civil engineering firm, to do a planning study and develop a concrete proposal.
The plan involved two huge dams and one smaller one. A 60-foot dam was to be built near the tip of Birchwood Lake, the second, a still larger 70-foot main dam would be built at the base of Tourne Mountain (past the ball fields and picnic area, past the bridge over Rigby’s Brook, to the hillside below Rock Lane in Boonton Township). Finally, a smaller dam would be located north of Arden Road near Old Boonton Road. The entire area from just below Crestview Road to Old Boonton Road in Denville would be an 80-foot deep lake totaling 190 acres. The reservoir area included parts of Mountain Lakes, Denville, and Boonton Township.
What was even more interesting was the plan for filling the reservoir and drawing it down. Killam proposed that a large aqueduct be constructed from the Jersey City Reservoir to the Tourne reservoir. The Tourne reservoir would have been 350 feet higher than that in Jersey City so during the draw-down periods, gravity could be used to move the water through the aqueduct. To fill the Tourne reservoir, however, giant pumps would be installed near the sewerage treatment plant to pump literally billions of gallons of water 2½ miles and 350 feet up through the aqueduct.
The RVRSA did not really try to hide the plan but did not attempt to publicize it widely either. A low-key hearing was scheduled in Boonton on September 25, 1973. Luckily, an alert Mountain Lakes resident, Josie Uhrig, noticed the newspaper announcement and raised the alarm.
A number of people in the community were appalled. A committee was formed consisting of residents of the three affected towns and others. Calling themselves the Save Our Tourne Valley Coalition, the committee went to work to study the proposal, analyze its weaknesses, and prepare counter arguments. The Committee prepared a comprehensive report pointing out numerous major flaws in the RVRSA’s plan. The primary flaws were:
- High Cost: The RVRSA counted only the costs of improvements. There would also have been the costs of land acquisition, payroll, and operations costs. The power for pumping alone would have been one million watts, roughly equal to the power required to run a town the size of Mountain Lakes! If all costs were included, it would make the price of water over $1000/million-gals, a factor of 3 higher than the market cost at that time.
- Flow Augmentation Objections: Increasing the flow on the lower Rockaway was not needed under any set of reasonable assumptions and was clearly prohibited by several New Jersey statutes.
- Water Recycling Objections: If the objective was to recycle treated sewage water, the proposed configuration was badly flawed. The treatment plant should have been located higher upstream where gravity would allow the flow into the Jersey City Reservoir with zero pumping cost.
The primary reasons the Tourne should be saved:
- Tourne Park is Needed for Open Space in Morris County: At the time, the County Master Plan called for 12 acres of parkland for each 1000 residents. Region 2, the most populous area of the County, had less than one-half that. Costs of land were rapidly escalating and available land for parkland was vanishing. It made no sense to remove such a huge block of land that would be very costly to replace.
- Once it’s Gone, it Cannot be Replaced: The Tourne Valley is not just any land. It is so rich in terms of its history, its surroundings, its flora and fauna, that it would not be possible to replace at any cost.
- Environmental Impact: The plan would replace a typical terrestrial community with an aquatic habitat. No recreational use could be made of it, however, because its level would fluctuate. The peak drawn down season would correspond with the peak summer recreational needs. Beyond that, many environmental questions remained unanswered such as the affect on the water table, impact on the lakes in Mountain Lakes, threats to neighboring communities caused by possible fissures in surrounding mountains, and risks of dam failure.
The Citizen Committee issued its report in January 1974 and sent a large number of copies to legislators, journalists, and decision makers throughout the state and federal government. Then teams fanned out to conduct briefings with the state DEP, key legislators in Trenton, and the EPA in Washington. By the end of April, the RVRSA had abandoned the Tourne reservoir plan.