Two N.J. towns fight trout stream designation


CEDAR GROVE, N.J. -- Back when the Peckman River was a watery dump for sewage, grass clippings and broken furniture, the notion of its becoming a trout stream seemed like a fantasy. But two sewage plants on the small river were upgraded. Residents cleared debris, then began stocking the river with trout.

The state wants to label this unremarkable river in the unbroken sprawl of northern New Jersey a trout stream.

The moral of the tale: Be careful what you fish for. The federal Clean Water Act, filtered through the state bureaucracy, is emitting a fine mess.

Officials in two towns are fighting the state's attempt to bestow on the Peckman River the rare distinction of being an urban trout stream. They fear that it would require an even cleaner river, which they estimate could ultimately cost them a combined $28 million in sewer plant improvements, partly to cool the treated sewage flowing to the river. That's more than the annual operating budgets of the two towns, Cedar Grove and Verona, combined.

"The citizens are all excited about the good job they did here, and now they're being punished," said Thomas Tucci, Cedar Grove's township manager.

'Success story'

The good deed is being praised, not punished, said Bradley M. Campbell, the state commissioner of environmental protection. "It's a clean-water success story," he said. Campbell said $28 million was a gross overestimate, and the trout stream designation would protect that success.

But now comes the Friends of the Peckman River, who led the cleanup and stock the river annually. They see poetic injustice in the squabble, becausetheir founder, Sam Perelli, was a voluble tax opponent who was a fisherman and local resident. He died last year, and the group's new leader, Paula Brown, is outraged that its public-spirited efforts could cost taxpayers. "This is like mugging Norman Rockwell," she said.

She's threatening to pull the trout from the river.

This raises a question: Can the state call it a trout stream if it has no trout?

The answer, apparent to any casual student of government, is: Yes.

A "trout maintenance" classification is meant to protect water quality, not fish. Trout, and other signs of life, are barometers of the river's health. Beside, state inspectors found only 13 trout.

The Peckman River is "a symbol that we can have clean water in urbanized areas," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. He accused local officials of inflating the potential costs of waste treatment.

Ella Filippone of the Passaic River Coalition said the fight over raising a river rating was unusual, but the towns "don't want the regulatory hammer put on them."

The river is hardly noticeable running behind Route 23, known locally as a back way to the giant Willowbrook Mall. Essex County's Peckman has none of the romance of St. Petersburg's Neva, or the majesty of Europe's Danube, or even the charm of Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal.

"I thought it was sewer water, to tell you the truth," said Vincent Gallucci, who operates a carpet warehouse on the left bank of the Peckman.

Gallucci is not far off. The cleanest water in the six-mile Peckman, which flows into the Passaic River, is treated waste water, local officials say. The water on either side of the two-mile stretch of clean water is polluted.

No splash expected

State officials never expected the splash they caused, and the destocking of the river is a stunt the McGreevey administration can do without. Campbell has offered a compromise, meant to protect water quality and taxpayers.

If the towns accept the "trout maintenance" designation, they will not have to meet higher water quality standards unless they increase the capacity of their treatment plants, he said.

Local officials are wary. A large housing development planned for the area could require more sewer plant capacity, they say. So the designation could become costly, soon or in the future.

In this quandary, no one is getting off the hook easily.

Brown, of the river group, is readying poles and buckets to relocate the trout as a protest. If the state declares the river a trout stream, the trout go, she warned. If the state leaves it a nontrout stream, the trout stay.

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