Our Passaic River Watershed -- To Protect And Enjoy


Know Our River

The Passaic River is the longest river system within New Jersey with its main stem about 80 miles (130 km) long.  The Passaic River's watershed also called a basin (that is, the area of land whose runoff and streams flow to the River or its tributaries, ala the diagram to the right-- click to enlarge) is about 935 square mile (1500 sq. km), covering parts of 7 counties in New Jersey and 2 in New York.  

From its source in Mendham Township in Morris County, NJ, the River flows south through the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge,   then turns northeast.  In Paterson, the River plunges over the Great Falls, the second largest waterfall by volume east of the Mississippi, and then flows south into Newark Bay and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean.  The major tributaries include the Ramapo River originating in New York State, and the Wanaque, Pequannock, Rockaway, Whippany, Pompton and Saddle Rivers.  In its upper reaches, the river system contains miles of seemingly pristine headwaters, valuable wetlands, wildlife habitats, historic sites and important water supplies flowing from the New Jersey Highlands.   In its lower reaches, the watershed of the River is heavily developed. 

The Past

The Passaic has a rich natural and cultural history.  The book "The Passaic River: past, present, future‎" published in 1974 offers a great overview; its available in many libraries and from on-line used book sellers.  The degradation of the lower River is covered extensively in the book "A Common Tragedy: History of an Urban River" published in 2002.

The Passaic River’s history evolves from the end of the last ice age. A retreating glacier left behind millions of tons of debris and reconfigured the drainage patterns.  At the southern edge of the glacier a huge lake formed, fed by the melting ice.  Now known as Glacial Lake Passaic, this lake was centered in the present lowland swamps of Morris County.  As the ice retreated, the waters found outlets at Moggy Hollow, Great Notch and later at Millington Gorge, thus establishing the course of the modern river approximately 13,000 years ago.





Native Americans used and altered the rich natural environment as they traveled along and on the River for thousands of years.  In many cases, their agricultural clearings became the locations for later European settlements and their transportation routes remain in use today.  Traces of their culture and names of their settlements are found throughout the region and remain as precious windows into the area’s human past. 

In the 17th century, European settlers used the River for transportation, and a source of food, water supply and power for early industries.  The book "A Great Conveniency: A Maritime History of the Passaic River, Hackensack River, and Newark Bay" published in 2008 will tell the NJ or maritime history buff all they want to know. New Jersey's largest city, Newark, was founded on the banks of the River in 1666. 

The settlers cut down the original forests for lumber and to produce charcoal to fuel the iron industry.  The iron industry was the principal driver of settlement in much of the region, beginning in the 18th century through well into the 20th.  Small streams and larger rivers were dammed to provide water power for the iron forges, grist mills and a host of other industries. The Great Falls in Paterson was a source of hydropower, resulting in the emergence of Paterson as an early industrial center.   

The Morris Canal, completed in the 1830s and heavily used through the 1860s, allowed boats to travel across New Jersey between Newark Bay and the Delaware River.  The canal was an engineering marvel in its day, traversing changes in elevation of 760’ as it traveled over the Highlands of New Jersey.  After the 1860s, use declined and it was formally abandoned in 1924. Although it has largely disappeared,  portions are preserved. The Canal Society of NJ continues to highlight, preserve and restore the canal’s history.

Near the mouth of the River and in Newark Bay, the salt marshes were slowly but relentlessly drained, diked and ultimately filled.  The area that is now Newark Airport and much of Port Newark was once a tidal marsh.  










Many industries discharge wastes directly into the lower River below Paterson for many decades.  While these discharges ended in the 1970s , they have left a legacy in River's sediments.

In the late 1800s, it was common to install sewers that carried both stormwater and sewage ("combined sewers"), these were installed in Paterson and Newark, discharging directly to the River.  In the 1920s, large pipes were installed along the River to intercept the flow ("inceptor sewers") and carry it to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners wastewater treatment plant in Newark.   This eliminated the routine discharge of sewage to the River during dry weather. 

The Present

The River Serves Us

The Passaic River provides many services. The Upper River and its tributaries (Pequannock, Rockaway, Wanaque, Ramapo and Pompton Rivers) are a source of drinking water for millions of northern New Jersey residents.  Interconnected systems deliver the water primarily through the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission serving 107 municipalities, the Passaic Valley Water Commission serving Clifton, Passaic and Paterson and numerous surrounding towns, and the NJ American Water Company,  serving about 42 towns.   A number of towns also rely on groundwater from the Buried Valley Aquifer, a sole source aquifer shaped by the glaciation of the area.

The River and its thousands of acres of floodplains wetlands serve as habitat for many bird, fish and other species, including the threatened and endangered species wood turtle, bog turtle, barred owl, and blue-spotted salamander (in New Jersey, found only in the Passaic watershed).  They provides important nesting, feeding, and resting areas for migrating birds.  These wetlands also absorb flood waters, reducing downstream flood damage.

If you'd like to know what kinds of fish and invertebrates are found in the Lower River, see the article entitled Historical and Current Ecology of the Lower Passaic River published in 2004.

The harbor into which the Passaic flows provides one of the most flexible multi-purpose cargo centers in the United States at Port Newark.  Its facilities include wharves, deep-water ship berths, and 3 million square feet of distribution buildings, specialized facilities, roadways and direct rail access. 

There are many ways to enjoy the natural benefits of the Passaic River basin -- see our "enjoy" web page.

Environmental Challenges

As alluded to above, the Lower River continues to suffer major environmental ills, including bearing the burden of past practices in the form of contaminated sediments, which according to the USEPA, are "contaminated with a variety of hazardous substances, including dioxin, PCBs, mercury, DDT, pesticides and heavy metals"

Also, combined sewers still serve Paterson and Newark.  The flow is too large during large rainstorms for the  sewers and/or the treatment plant to handle;  to relieve the excess flow, there are "combined sewer overflows" in which stormwater mixed with sewage enters the River.   There are about 35 overflow points in Paterson and Newark.   (Combined sewer overflows are currently regulated by a "Combined Sewer Overflow General Permit" from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which specifies what must be done to control the overflows.)

Moreover, large amounts of trash ("floatables") flow into the Lower River from surrounding streets every time it rains.  The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commissioners  operates skimmer vessels that pick up some of this trash. There was a conference in 2008, organized by the Passaic River Institute of Montclair State University, entitled Tackling Floatable Trash and Debris in the Passaic River, Hackensack River and Newark Bay: Current Efforts and New Approaches -- you can view the presentations on-line.  

Throughout the Basin, flooding remains a persistent problem. As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers puts it, the Corps "has been working on plans to reduce flooding in the basin since 1936, but no comprehensive plan has yet been implemented due to the lack of support, costs, and environmental concerns".  Numerous small-to-medium size projects  are underway to reduce flood damages .  For example, the Corps is working to preserve 5,350 acres natural flood storage areas along the upper River.


The Future

The future of the Passaic looks brighter than it has in years.  The Lower Passaic River Restoration Project is a partnership of federal and New Jersey agencies designed to cleanup contaminated sediments, improve water quality, restore degraded shorelines, restore and create new habitats and enhance human use along a 17-mile stretch of the lower Passaic and in several tributaries from Dundee Dam near Garfield, to Newark Bay.

The Corps of Engineers has a Hudson-Raritan Estuary Study which has produced a Comprehensive Restoration Plan for the Hudson-Raritan Estuary.

Numerous organizations  are working to improve and protect natural resources.  Please check them out.

You can learn more about what you can do to protect the river here.





Our Passaic River Basin -- To Protect And Enjoy.

Creation of this web site was made possible by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency
to the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, ANJEC.  
The web site was developed by ANJEC and the Passaic River Institute of Montclair State University 
Email comments or suggestions to pri@montclair.edu

A mention on this web page does not imply endorsement by any agency or organization.