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Dredging at Newton Creek ends after years of planning, work

Posted on January 16, 2023

Despite the January chill, Newton Lake Park’s walking trails were well populated on a recent weekday. People and their dogs — dogs and their people? — strolled the winding paths just off Cuthbert Boulevard and Lakeshore Drive, taking in the view and trying to navigate around the ubiquitous Canadian geese.

The park’s popularity wasn’t lost on Maggie McCann Johns, director of Camden County’s Parks Department, or on Scott Schreiber, executive director of the county’s Municipal Utilities Authority, or on Commissioner Jeff Nash, liaison to the Parks Department, who greeted two- and four-legged park visitors as they walked past.

The park spanning Haddon Township, Collingswood and Oaklyn is more enjoyable, and the lake more environmentally sound, Nash said, after a two-year project to dredge Newton Lake, Peter’s Creek and two ponds adjacent to the lake was completed earlier this month. Massive machines that had been moved to various points along the lake are now out of the water, currently stationed at a boat launch just off the White Horse Pike and Newton Avenue.

Nash called it “the largest environmental project in recent Camden County history,” an undertaking first envisioned as early as 2015. A combination of sediment, algae and vegetation were choking waterway; stormwater runoff carried fertilizer from lawns and gardens into the lake, while animal waste from geese, pets and feral cats flowed brought more pollution.

It wasn’t just nasty. It was killing the lake, Nash said: “The waterway was suffocating.”

“We took 217,000 cubic yards of sediment and vegetation out,” said Schreiber, but what he seems most proud of is that the project came in under-budget, with a total cost of $23 million (less than the projected $25 million cost).

Funding came from the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust financing program, with a low-interest bond to be paid over 30 years. Nash said it’s possible some of the loan could be forgiven, adding, “We did this without a significant impact on the (county) budget.”

More work remains, mostly at the edges of the water: Bank stabilization, repairs to outfall pipes, improvements to stormwater infrastructure to slow future sediment buildup. Riparian buffers — the trees, grasses and shrubs along the water — will be repaired and restored where needed to shore up the vegetation that absorbs water and sediment before it goes into the lake.

Nash said more improvements will be coming to the sprawling park as well, including repairs to its aging structures, upgrades to the walking/biking trails and perhaps more lighting and security features.

In 2015, residents along the water were complaining about the marshy mess it had become, but McCann Johns said that’s the way Newton Lake originally was. It wasn’t until the Great Depression and a Works Progress Administration project widened what was basically a swamp into a lake and created a park surrounding it.

“There was a time when the importance of wetlands wasn’t appreciated,” she explained. “They were thought of as something to be managed and cleared or filled.” Without the dredging, it would have gone back to its natural swampy state.

She remembered the years of discussion and planning that went into the project; how it would affect three municipalities, its cost, its long-term benefit, and the environmental impact on the waterway — not to mention the fish, birds and other wildlife it sustains — all had to be taken into consideration before any work could begin.

“Jeff said in a (commissioners’) meeting, ‘We’re going to have to dredge from Cuthbert to the Black Horse Pike,’ she recalled. Doing any less would mean having clear spatterdock and sediment every year, McCann Johns explained, as man-made lakes fill in naturally. Dredging was subject not only to weather conditions but also to permits from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, which restricted work between March 15 and June 30 each year.

NJDEP weren’t the only ones keeping an eye on the work, either, Schreiber noted.

“This was the epitome of a public project,” he said. Residents, municipal officials, conservation and environmental groups were all consulted and kept apprised of progress through meetings, email blasts and a phone hotline. “The idea through the whole process was to be very transparent.”

The input was appreciated, he added. Conservation groups including Delaware Riverkeepers, Saddler’s Woods Conservation Association and Newton Creek Watershed Association “pushed the envelope on what government can ― and should ― do. Their requests were a lot, but they were right.

“It took a lot of time, but this got everything to where it needed to be.”


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