Get ready for the Newton Lake dredging project in South Jersey | Kevin Riordan

Watershed advocates Lorraine Prince and Fred Stine ask questions during a public hearing about Camden County’s Newton Lake dredging project last Wednesday in Collingswood.

Hallelujah: Dredging work on a three-mile stretch of Newton Lake — a scenic oasis in a densely populated expanse of Camden County — may begin as soon as October, with completion set for 2020.

The project will affect the lives of thousands of people who, like me, use or live near the surrounding park. The work also will impact the lives of an unknown number of carp, turtles, ducks, and spatterdock lily pads that make their home in the beautiful, if troubled, waterway.

The $25 million, 18-month undertaking is the biggest in the history of the Camden County Park System. It’s a logistically complex effort that will temporarily curtail public access and may affect local traffic; the Oaklyn Cougars, a beloved youth football team, will temporarily lose the use of their home field next year.

But the goal is to save a lake that was created in the 1930s by the dredging and damming of a creek that meandered through tidal wetlands. The Newton is turning back into a marsh, and previous dredging projects, including one completed about 15 years ago, haven’t been enough to stave off the seemingly inexorable process.

“We want to make sure we do it right. But it’s not going to be done in a day,” says Freeholder Jeff Nash, who rightly describes Newton Lake Park as “a great amenity” for Camden County’s inner-ring suburbs.

Public support for the project runs deep: Nash and other officials got a round of applause — applause! — after presenting the plan last Wednesday at the Collingswood Community Center.

The fact that the work will be paid for through what the county describes as a 30-year, nearly zero-interest loan from the state is not the sole reason for the enthusiasm.

“It looks like the dredging is being done thoughtfully,” Fred Stine, citizen action coordinator for the waterway advocacy group the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, told me.

“I believe the county is planning on doing the work in as ecologically sensitive a way as it can,” he said.

“We’re quite happy the lake is being dredged,” said Lorraine Prince, a leader of the Newton Creek Watershed Association. “Our main purpose now is to act as the watchdogs over how it will be done.”

Said Rashawn Lewis, a devoted angler whose organization, South Jersey Hook This, holds bass-fishing tournaments at Newton Lake: “We want to make sure that the natural bass habitat and key spawning areas are maintained … and [that the project] improves water quality by removing stagnant sediments.”

Camera icon CAMDEN COUNTY PARK SYSTEM
The portion of Newton Lake near the White Horse Pike in the 1930s, before it was dredged to create Newton Lake Park.

Sediment flowing into the lake from upstream or from erosion of its banks — conditions to be addressed as part of the project — have made the lake shallower. Lawn fertilizers and waterfowl waste have over-enriched this shallow body of water with nitrogen and phosphorus, encouraging unsightly and invasive plant and algae growth, and impacting wildlife habitats.

Much of the dredging will take place between the Black and White Horse Pikes and between Cuthbert Boulevard and Bettlewood Avenue. Peters Creek, the tributary that forms Oaklyn’s boundary with Audubon Park, also will be dredged as part of the project, as will Nichols Pond and a nearby second pond, both in Collingswood.

Like most of the Camden County Park System, Newton Lake was proposed in the booming 1920s by Republican business leaders who saw creation of an urban-suburban network of green spaces as a tool to make Greater Camden into a metropolis to rival Philadelphia.

The 1929 crash scuttled such dreams but not the park system — parts of which, including Newton Lake, were largely completed through New Deal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps.

In other words, the excellent and in many places beautiful park system that enhances the quality of life in overtaxed, all-Democratic Camden County is a monument to … bipartisanship!

But an aerial photograph displayed on an overhead screen at last Wednesday’s meeting offered the best evidence of why the lake matters: It is surrounded by a intricate lattice of residential streets.

Newton Lake Park is a fragile arc of water, woods, and grass, within a cocoon of communities full of young families.

This helps explain why the lake’s constituencies are so vocal — and also why its problems have been so intractable. Rainwater runs off those paved suburban surfaces and into the lake, causing sedimentation and eutrophication, and leading to round after expensive round of dredging.

The Paul VI High School campus, where a stormwater outfall pipe built prior to 1970s environmental legislation discharges directly into the upper Newton, has been cited by some environmentalists as a major factor in the downstream problems.

But the Diocese of Camden has had no “formal discussions” regarding the outfall pipe or the dredging project, spokesman Mike Walsh said.

Camera icon KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff
A heron surveys the water at Newton Lake Park near the Lees Lane Bridge in Collingswood last week.

Nash said potential contributors to the erosion and sedimentation problems also include nearby shopping center parking lots. Stine agreed, and pointed out that individual homeowners who widen driveways, build additions, and otherwise increase the amount of impermeable surfaces on their property also could be encouraged to plant rain gardens to lessen the amount of stormwater headed toward the lake.

“The county needs to act more aggressively about upstream pollution sources,” he said.

“At every zoning and planning board meeting in the surrounding towns, decisions are made that increase impervious surface coverage in the Newton Lake watershed by approving subdivisions and permitting tear-downs of cottages and replacing them with McMansions.”

So in other words, responsibility for the future of Newton Lake lies not only with the government, or environmentalists, or engineers who design dredging projects.

It’s up to the anglers, birdwatchers, runners, cyclists, hikers, and everyone else who enjoys this wonderful place to be mindful of its fragility. And to try, in some way, to ensure its future.