And a River, Such as It Is, Runs Through It

By KEVIN COYNE  New York Times
January 7, 2007

Upper Saddle River

THE Saddle River has run through Bill Yeomans’s family for generations, and on fine days he likes to sit with his dog under a swamp maple beside the old grist mill where he grew up and still lives, watching it gurgle past at the start of its journey toward the Great Falls in Paterson and the sea beyond.

“We call it the river,” said Mr. Yeomans, 72, pointing toward the narrow, shallow artery that could be forded with just a couple of splashy strides. “Obviously, it’s not a river here.”

It’s more of a brook as it bisects his five wooded acres, and most days it flows almost as clear and swift as it did when he was a boy in the 1940s fishing for trout. But on a few days, he said, “it turns chocolate brown.” Those are the days that have moved his town to aim a lawsuit across the state line into neighboring Rockland County, and that have sent Mr. Yeomans and dozens of other volunteers into the river with nets and sample jars to measure its health.

The state line is just half a mile up the road from his home, and when he was growing up, the sign that welcomed drivers into New Jersey declared, as he remembers it, “Entering Upper Saddle River, Leaving Populated Area.” Maybe 500 people lived here then, and his schoolhouse was one room, with five grades.

The population is more like 8,000 now, but with its grand houses on lots averaging just under an acre, Upper Saddle River is less densely settled than its northern neighbors, and that disparity gave rise to the interstate trouble.

“They’re allowing overdevelopment, and they don’t have the infrastructure to support it,” said Dennis Schubert, a member of the Upper Saddle River Borough Council, which recently authorized the filing of a suit in federal court against the village of Airmont in Rockland County and Rockland Sewer District No. 1.

“What they do with their land, that’s their business,” Mr. Schubert said. “But when their sewage comes in my river, that’s my business.”

Both sides agree that on the wettest days, when heavy rain pours into Rockland’s drainage pipes, the sewer system sometimes overflows into the Saddle River, which is in turn the natural drainage system for the affluent valley it meanders through. Last year, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation fined the sewer district $20,000 for overflows; under a consent order, the district hired an engineering firm that is supposed to offer some solutions to the problem by July.

Where Upper Saddle River disagrees with its northern neighbors is on the scope of the problem, and the reasons for it.

“I believe they’re generally opposed to certain development that’s happening on the border and they’re using whatever means and methods they can to try to fight that, and one of the ways they’re fighting it is they’re trying to claim there’s no sewer capacity,” said Dianne Philipps, executive director of the sewer district, which she says has sufficient capacity for the 180,000 people it serves in western Rockland County.

They also disagree about the extent of the latest spill, which happened when vandals clogged a sewer line in August by dropping a cinder block through a manhole just upstream from Mr. Yeomans’s home.

Town officials say 2.5 million gallons of sewage spilled into the river. Ms. Philipps said, “That would be impossible.” The district’s estimate was 4,000 gallons.
[Editors Note: click here to see how the Preserve Ramapo estimate was computed, and here for the spill report filed by RCSD#1]

A few weeks after that spill, Bill Yeomans bought some rubber boots and pinned on his blue “River Assessment Team” badge (“It looks very official,” he said). Then he waded into the river and started counting the caddis flies and other tiny creatures that he seined up from the shallow water.

The fall survey was the first by the new team of river volunteers that organized to monitor the water flowing into town from the more crowded areas over the border; the next is planned for later this month. “It was after a clear spell, and it looked pretty good,” said Mr. Yeomans, a retired J. C. Penney executive and a member of the town’s environmental committee, who is better acquainted with the river than any other volunteer.

“That was Anona Park, just up there,” he said, pointing north along the river through the trees toward the site of the old family business. In 1928, his father and grandfather, using wheelbarrows and a small mixer, built a dam across the river to make a swimming lake, surrounded by a wooded picnic grove with a dance pavilion and 450 picnic tables that families rented for the summer.

The park had recently closed when Mr. Yeomans came back to town with his wife from New York in 1972 to live in the mill his father had converted into a house. The fish, he noticed then, were also gone.

“A blue heron comes by once in a while, but I never see him catch anything,” he said one day last week as he watched, with sharper, more vigilant eyes, the river that named his town and shaped his family roll steadily past.