June 27, 2008

Study Shows Hackensack River Coming Back to Life

By Scott Fallon, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.

Jun. 27--The number of worms, crustaceans and other small invertebrates in the Hackensack River has increased threefold since the 1980s, indicating that the flowing water is cleaner than it has been in years, scientists said Thursday.

The study mirrors one released in 2005 that indicates a sizable rise in the number and diversity of fish in the river over the same 15-year period.

"It's progress in the right direction," said Francisco Artigas, director of the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute, which conducted the $412,000 study.

About 215,000 creatures called benthic organisms were found in sediment samples taken from the river in 2002, compared with 65,000 in 1987.

Also increasing is the diversity of species -- from 52 in 1987 to 67 in 2002, when the samples were taken.

The creatures are an important part of the river's ecosystem, filtering impurities from the water and eating organic matter on the riverbed.

"They feed on the junk no one else wants," Artigas said.

The creatures were taken from the same 26 spots used in 1987, over a 9-mile stretch of the river.

Changes that have helped the river come back to life include the sealing of landfills and the diversion of millions of gallons of runoff from the river to treatment plants, the closing of four small municipal sewage plants and improvements in sewage treatment at larger plants.

Although the studies are encouraging, scientists caution that the Hackensack is still polluted. Most fish still carry dangerously high levels of such contaminants as mercury and PCBs.

"This is still a very stressed-out ecosystem," Artigas said. "This is a post-industrial river. We have an incredible legacy of contamination that we have been successfully dealing with. It's all good news, but we have to keep it into context."

Still, some environmentalists were surprised the increase among the bottom dwellers was so great.

"This is another study that shows we can have it both ways," said Hugh Carola, program director of the environmental group Hackensack Riverkeeper. "We can have an urban waterway and we can have creatures living in it."

The study was painstaking work with technicians and interns spending hundreds of hours sorting through the mud for the small creatures and cataloging them. The results were not released until Thursday because the staff had spent years concentrating on the fish study and other analyses of the river.

The next step is to see if there is a direct connection between the chemical conditions of the sediment and the number of small invertebrates, Artigas said.


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