The little waterway known as Newton Creek is more than a little . . . complicated. Like Camden County, where it's located.
Connecting some of South Jersey's richest and poorest communities as it meanders toward the Delaware River, the six-mile waterway has three main tributaries, feeds four lakes, and serves very different constituencies.
It has a Superfund site at one end, a rain garden at the other, and beleaguered, though beloved, parks in between. The lakes are man-made (for which we can thank Franklin Roosevelt), while other parts of the watershed are as natural as a metropolitan area can be.
And while its water is cleaner than it was 30 years ago, largely due to completion of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority's sewage treatment system, the Newton still is considered "impaired" under standards set by the federal Clean Water Act.
"People drive across the creek all the time," Fred Stine said, as he did so on Nicholson Road in Gloucester City. "They never realize what's going on with it."
To increase public awareness of issues facing the creek, Stine - of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a watershed advocacy group - took a dozen visitors on a tour last week.
"We don't want people to think the Newton Creek is a polluted mess," he added. "Parts of it are beautiful."
After a two-hour excursion through the heart of the 13.6-square-mile watershed, I brought home fresh appreciation for a place I thought I knew.
The creek's Collingswood portion, which I walked regularly for 25 years, is highly visible. But elsewhere, most of the creek is obscured by highways, bridges, and brush.
In spots, the aquatic plant many people call duckweed - official name, Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica) - grows so abundantly that the water is barely visible.
"I've never seen it from this angle," observed one of my fellow tourists, as we gazed at the Newton from atop the "hump" of the Nicholson Road bridge in Gloucester City.
My congenial group included representatives of Camden Greenways, the Center for Environmental Transformation, Urban Promise, the Haddonfield Environmental Commission, and the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
"I live on the Peter's Creek branch," said Chris Hartline, a cafeteria manager from Oaklyn. "I'm worried about invasive plants."
Lawnside resident Algiers Holmes, who has long been active with Camden Greenways, says creekside walking trails should be built. She's also seeking improvements to a wooded stretch of Evers Park that curves along the Newton in the city's Morgan Village section.
And Jim Cummings, who lives in Pitman but works at Urban Promise in East Camden, wants kids in his kayaking program to have easier access to the water.
People who weren't on the tour also have a stake in the creek.
Bob Gauld, a lifelong Haddon Township resident who lives across from Newton Lake Park, doesn't believe the county has lived up to its commitment to trim the tall grasses that act as a cleansing mechanism at the water's edge. His views of the lake haven't been enhanced this summer by a hot-weather algae bloom so extravagant that the water looks like pea soup.
Freeholder Jeff Nash insists that the county is working hard to balance the interests of residents who want scenery, recreational users who can be hard on the grass (so, too, their dogs), and environmentalists concerned about habitats.
"Any lake requires extensive maintenance," Nash said, citing plans to install aerators for algae control on Newton Lake, where fishing docks will be rebuilt.
And while a $1 million dredging project in the lake nearly a decade ago was successful, "erosion of the banks of the creek has to be addressed," he said.
It seems nature is working diligently to transform the lakes into the swamps they were before the county built its park system during the Depression.
With resurgent habitats, "you can see the wildlife coming back," says the Riverkeeper's John Nystedt, who helped design the rain garden near Saddler's Run, a Newton tributary in Haddon Township.
The garden is a thing of beauty. It's practical, too: It helps keep fertilizer and other algae-feeding substances out of the creek.
"It could work in Morgan Village, too," Nystedt says.
Fred Stine leads
a tour of Newton Creek. www.philly.com/newton