By Jaimie Julia Winters
The North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, which cleared over 70 trees at Alfonzo F. Bonsal Preserve in July in maintenance of its waterline, has been issued a notice of violation by the Department of Environmental Protection.
The water company, which owns an easement through the property, was issued the notice a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesperson confirmed last week.
A DEP inspector visited the site on Aug. 9 after receiving three reports of the water company clearing trees without a permit and the spraying of herbicides.
The inspector’s report stated 6,900 square feet of wetlands had been disturbed by the project.
Bonsal is home to freshwater wetlands, with the Third River running through it. Due to the preserve’s Green Acres funding, its wildlife habitat and protected wetlands status, the DEP and the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Department should have been notified of the project by the water commission.
The state regulates “The destruction of plant life, which would alter the character of a freshwater wetland, including killing vegetation by applying herbicides or by other means, the physical removal of wetland vegetation, and/or the cutting of trees” in freshwater wetlands areas.
Eighty percent of vegetation cleared was within the transition area. About 20 percent of the removal occurred in the Freshwater Wetlands Mapping area, according to a report issued after the inspection.
A transition area is defined as uplands adjacent to the freshwater wetlands and considered integral component of the wetlands. The removal of vegetation and trees requires a transition area waiver.
The DEP confirmed that the water company had not filed any permit or easement rights paperwork with the state.
Two years ago, the water company directed a $550,940 tree-cutting project throughout its miles-long system, not only in the Montclair preserve, but also through Montclair Country Club and parts of Wanaque, Pompton Lakes, Pequannock, Wayne, Little Falls, Clifton and Belleville. The entire system supplies over 100 million gallons of water daily to nearly three million people.
A May 2015 report commissioned by the water commission, cited tree root damage to its aqueduct systems as most concerning, but other issues included access to the system, liability due to falling trees or limbs and wildfires and security issues as the trees could conceal dangerous activities.
Friends of the Bonsal Preserve, a citizen’s group which has overseen the property since the 1970s, said the loss of the trees and other flora along the banks of the Third River has caused flooding to the property. Because the commission’s easement hugs the river, many trees that were removed were along the river line.
“Since riparian zone vegetation is so important for the health of the regulated water, the removal of this vegetation is discouraged by the Flood Hazard Area Control Act (FHACA) Rules. Consequently, all disturbances to vegetation, soil excavation and construction within riparian zones are considered regulated activities and require approval from the department. Utility lines often impact riparian zones. Therefore, they are regulated activities, requiring permits for their maintenance and construction,” states the FHACA technical manual.
Water commission executive director Tim Eustace maintained the tree clearing was done appropriately and only where necessary in order to protect the water line.
“I recommend the issuance of a Notice of Violation from unauthorized impacts from vegetation maintenance… that has occurred within the [Flood Hazard Area],” the inspector concluded in his report.
If the water company can’t produce a copy of its easement, the town could be at risk. If Green Acres considers the tree clearing a diversion, Green Acres could reach out to Montclair for mitigation; Green Acres has a contract with Montclair, not the water company, for the property, a DEP spokesman said.
The preserve is coming off another tree clearing project. Clifton took down 13 trees on the 21-acre preserve in early May in order to replace and relocate an 80-year-old sewer line that runs under the property and services Clifton residences that border the preserve.