ROXBURY, NJ – Pointing to an “alarming trend” of diminished vitality in Ledgewood Brook, a water quality watchdog group blames the nearby Fenimore Landfill project. Roxbury officials say the stream remains in good shape.

In its 2014 Stream Monitoring Report, the Raritan Headwaters Association (RHA) pulls no punches in pointing a finger at Fenimore. It said activity at the landfill, starting in 2012, is the only logical explanation for a drop in the number of benthic macroinvertebrates – tiny crustaceans, worms and insects that serve as indicators of stream health – found in the brook.

In 2012, in the midst of tree removal and renewed waste disposal at the formerly dormant landfill, the RHA began monitoring the waterway at a point upstream from Ledgewood Pond. “Since the dump reopened in 2012, the RHA has monitored the water quality in the Ledgewood Brook,” says an executive summary of the RHA report. “For the past three years, the stream has been non-attainment for aquatic life use with a water quality rating of fair.”

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The stream’s friendliness to bugs was checked in 2007, when the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found it to be in excellent condition, capable of “full attainment” for the sensitive little lifeforms. In April 2007, the brook achieved a “good” High Gradient Macroinvertebrate Index (HGMI) score of almost 63, according to the DEP.

In 2014, its HGMI score came in at 33, said the RHA.

“Using a different water quality index, the New Jersey Impairment Score (NJIS), Ledgewood Brook received a non-impaired water quality rating … of 24 in 2007,” said the RHA. “Similarly, since the dump reopened, the stream has received a water quality rating of moderately impaired, with an NJIS score of 18 for the past three years.”

The group said the brook’s “visual habitat assessment score,” a measure of sediment in the water, has “declined steadily from an optimal score of 166 to a suboptimal score of 156 in 2013 to a suboptimal score of 132” last year.

“This data is alarming and should draw concern because a suboptimal habitat assessment cannot explain the nonattainment status of this stream and we must look upstream to determine the source of the problem,” said the RHA.

Several concerned residents who live near the landfill brought up the stream’s condition at Tuesday’s Roxbury Township Council meeting. “There’s a problem,” said Carl Panetta during the meeting’s public session. “That river’s becoming a dead river.”

But Councilman Martin Schmidt, citing the NJIS score of 18 annually since 2012, insisted the brook’s condition has not deteriorated, at least since Fenimore activity started. “The number’s been 18 consistently,” he told Panetta.

Roxbury Township Manager Christopher Raths said the brook is far from what you would call polluted, noting it meets standards for human consumption and, despite Panetta’s assertion otherwise, still carries trout. “The drinking water standard is an acceptable standard,” he said.

Addressing resident Robert Mederos’ concerns about the botched landfill project’s possible impact on both surface water and groundwater, Raths said the township would take new water samples if residents ask. “It would be our third or fourth time,” he pointed out. “But the offer is still out there. We will test private wells and we will test the (Ledgewood) basin, pond and streams … to drinking water standards.”

In an interview, RHA Water Quality Program Manager Angela Gorczyca conceded RHA’s tests do not show the cause of water quality degradation. “We can’t say what’s causing it, if it’s chemicals or what’s inside the landfill,” she said. “It could just be the change in land use from the landfill since it was re-opened. They cut down a lot of trees.”

In its report, the RHA said it plans to conduct chemical monitoring in the brook.

While Gorczyca said the score of 18 “isn’t awful,” she noted  the site of the testing (upstream from Ledgewood Pond) was at the very beginning – the headwaters – of the system and, therefore, should be free of the type of contamination typically found farther downstream due to increased contact with human pollution sources. “Headwater streams are typically high-scoring,” she said.

To bolster its assertion that Fenimore is causing the Ledgewood Brook problem, the RHA points out that the nearby Flanders Brook, which does not get water from the landfill area, shows no impairment, having a nearly perfect NJIS score of 27.

The health of Ledgewood Brook is something near to the heart of Agust Gudmundsson, one of New Jersey’s most avid trout anglers and conservationists. He said he fished the stream as a boy growing up in Roxbury.

“I learned about Ledgewood Brook from my middle school shop teacher, who happened be on the state Fish and Game Council” said Gudmundsson, who is now a Fish and Game Council member himself and vice-president of conservation for the New Jersey chapter of Trout Unlimited .

“We moved to Ledgewood when I was in Second Grade and my entire life, growing up, was on bicycles riding around Roxbury Township exploring lakes, ponds and streams.”

Gudmundsson said the little brook has seen its share of ups and downs over the years.

“I saw Ledgewood Brook degrading as I was growing up in the ‘70s,” he recalled. “You could find an honest 12-inch wild brook trout in there. Within 100 feet of Route 46, you could regularly catch them. But then I started seeing fewer and fewer of them and they started getting smaller.”

Gudmundsson moved out of Roxbury in 1981. He said the damage he saw happening to Ledgewood Brook back then motivated him to join Trout Unlimited and he still uses photos he took of the stream when he speaks at various Trout Unlimited chapters.

“I do a photo tour of New Jersey trout streams,” he said. I have some pictures of me walking that stretch and not catching fish, basically. One photo is of a big log-jam with a realtor sign in it. You can’t go home again, I guess. There are still fish in there, but they’re not the big fish we used to catch all the time and not in the same numbers.”

Ledgewood Brook feeds Drakes Brook. In its 2006-2009 studies of water quality in Drakes Brook at Emmans Road in Roxbury, the DEP found a shortage of benthic macroinvertebrates.  It rated the brook as being moderately impaired. However, the good news, according to the RHA report, is that more than 72 percent of the 470-square-mile Raritan River watershed is “non-impaired.”