Monday, November 22, 2010

Where Our Drinking Water Comes From--Canoing the Mighty Millstone

Drinking water is easy to take for granted. It emerges on demand from the faucet in a seemingly endless supply, and dutifully disappears down the drain a moment later.

With that brief moment in the light--the free fall from faucet to drain--the water is transformed from useful commodity into public burden.

After living in Princeton for seven years, I decided it was time to learn something about the water's journey to and from the kitchen sink.

Fortuitously, I met a neighbor last year at the annual park picnic who regulates water at the state's Dept. of Environmental Protection. He retrieved a map from his home and started drawing the outlines of the watersheds that serve as our water supply. Though a small portion of our water comes from wells down in Rogers Refuge, below the Institute Woods, most of it comes from surface waters, specifically the Millstone and Raritan Rivers, with a little input from the Delaware Raritan Canal.

At this year's picnic, he suggested we canoe down the Millstone to the water plant that cleans the river water and pumps it back to our homes.

One way to understand where our drinking water comes from is to step outside in a rain. In Princeton, the water flowing off our roofs and down the streets disappears into stormdrains that feed mostly into Mountain Brook or Harry's Brook. Mountain Brook on the west side joins the StonyBrook. In eastern Princeton, the Stonybrook and Harry's Brook join the Millstone at Carnegie Lake. By the time the water reaches the dam at Kingston, it's all called the Millstone River, which heads northeast, running parallel to the canal (the squiggly blue line heading up from left to right on the map).

In late October, my neighbor Paul, friend Steven, my daughter Anna, and I set out to canoe the route Princeton's runoff takes to the water plant. We drove the first part of the route.

First stop was just below Kingston on River Road, where Princeton's cleaned wastewater (from our homes) enters the Millstone. The sign boasts "Over 95 billion gallons reclaimed."

Farther downstream, we stopped at a nice bohemian cafe for coffee and locally produced ginger ale.
Our put in spot was located across the river from the cafe, just below the Amwell bridge.

The Millstone River turned out to be a beautiful wooded corridor. The yellows of hickories and the reds of tupelos made bold statements on the hillsides. Sunlight reflected off the rippled water surface onto trees, making graceful rings of light that slowly paraded up the trunks. Cornfields could be seen through the woods, planted in the broad floodplain much as Indians may have long ago.
A friend later told me these tree roots guarding the shore looked like they were out of a movie set for Lord of the Rings.
Anna enjoyed occasionally getting pulled along by Paul, who held the rope to her kayak in his teeth.

This is one of two dams the river flows over between Princeton and our destination at South Bound Brook. Interestingly, the Stonybrook/Millstone Watershed Association would like to see these dams modified or removed so that fish like shad could swim up the Millstone in the spring to spawn.
We lost Paul on the downstream side of the dam.
Turned out his curiosity had been piqued by a shadowy, circular object resting at the bottom of the river. Could it be the very millstone from which the river got its name?
Further on, we encountered some funky dwellings along river's edge, with elaborate armaments meant to keep the river from undermining the homes.

After two hours of scenic drift and dabbling in paddling, we reached the grand confluence of waters from which Princeton's drinking water is taken.

A portion of canal water entered from the right.

The Raritan River came in from the left. Before the joined waters tumble over the dam on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, water treatment plants on either side withdraw what becomes drinking water for many municipalities in the area.

The water from our homes and streets, then, joins with the natural flow of nearby brooks and the Millstone River on a 20 mile journey downstream to the confluence with the Raritan River, where a portion is pulled out, cleaned to high specifications, and pumped back up to our faucets. A forty mile journey in all, with two cleanings inbetween--a lot of work for that fleeting moment of utility in the house.

We carried our boats up the slope to one of the locks for the Delaware Raritan Canal, where we had parked our other car.

On the way back, we passed an interesting bit of shrubbery that looks like it was manicured with the blades of a helicopter flown upside down.

Part of our motivation to canoe the stretch was to scout out possibilities for an organized event for people to canoe down the Millstone or bike along the towpath. Turned out the Stonybrook/Millstone Watershed Association was already planning such an event for this coming spring, to highlight efforts to make the Millstone more accessible to migrating shad. Steve Kruse, of the Princeton Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, found articles about shad in the Millstone here and here.

A little curiosity about our drinking water led me to a great recreational corridor for people just downstream of Princeton--one that hopefully will also become once again a corridor for shad and other migratory fish.

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