Theories abound; some observers say region has lost groundwa


Feb 19, 2003
Merchantville, NJ
Theories abound; some observers say region has lost groundwater

JOSE F. MORENO/Courier-Post
Mark Demitroff, an amateur geologist, walks through what he claims was once a deeper body of water in Buena Vista.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Courier-Post Staff

The Subaru Outback bounces down a dirt road that cuts through flat lowlands near the Black Horse Pike in Atlantic County.

The land on either side is grassy and dotted with some small pine trees.

One side is used as an air base for fighting forest fires. On the other, dark water trickles through a culvert into a long ditch. It's all the water in sight.

"There it is - Crane Pond," Mark Demitroff says, stopping the car.

Ironically, old maps show that more than a century ago the land here was part of a string of long and shallow lakes known as the Lochs of the Swamp, probably for their resemblance to Scottish lakes, Demitroff says. The longest was more than a mile long. The lakes have long disappeared, and so have many more in what is today the southern Pinelands National Reserve, he argues. But why?

The self-employed landscaper and self-taught naturalist and geologist has immersed himself in this mystery.

Along the way he has challenged conventional scientific wisdom about the geologic history of the Pinelands, and forced researchers to at least consider the possibility that the region today is much drier than it was just a century ago.

He argues that many of the region's historical natural features - spungs, blue holes, cripples and savannas - have all but disappeared.ADVERTISEMENT - CLICK TO ENLARGE OR VISIT WEBSITE

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Spungs, he said, are small closed pockets charged with water for part of the year; cripples are short wetland corridors between forests; blue holes are springs along river corridors; and savannas are broad and grassy areas covered by shallow water.

The groundwater that fed them has been drawn down by too much development - farms, towns, casinos, even golf courses - over the past century, he contends. Further study needed

Experts acknowledge that development can affect groundwater levels in localized situations, but they stop far short of saying it's having the sweeping impacts Demitroff asserts - at least until more scientific evidence is in.

They've launched studies aimed at answering the question.

During a recent driving tour in the area where Atlantic, Cumberland and Gloucester counties converge, the 44-year-old Buena Vista resident visits one shallow depression after the next, sites of what he says were former ponds and swamps.

Despite ample rain and snowfall, they brim with shrubs and trees instead of water.

"Even well-educated, well-trained geologists would come out and look at these things and not recognize what they were, simply because in the past 100 years they've changed so much," Demitroff said.

Scientists paid little attention to these inconspicuous features of the landscape, he said. But he maintains they are warning signs that something is ecologically amiss.

He is slowly winning converts to his way of thinking, and, without doubt, is helping raise awareness of the region's groundwater, critical to frogs, salamanders, swamp pink and other Pinelands wildlife.

"Mark is like a hero in my eyes," said Fred Akers of the Great Egg Harbor River Watershed Association. His group has defrayed the cost of visits from professional geologists from outside the area to work with Demitroff.

One paper resulting from those visits shook up a lot of scientific types in New Jersey. Demitroff and Hugh French, a renowned geologist with the University of Ottawa in Ontario, argued development was indeed sucking down the region's water table.

Critics lashed back, arguing they had no evidence to make such a broad claim.

But Akers said local universities and geologists seemed locked into a mind-set about South Jersey's past, and, if nothing else, Demitroff is pushing them to be more open-minded.

"Personally, I think something is going on, but I'm not sure what its causes are," Akers said. "The water is disappearing to a point. Is it natural, or is it because of aquifer withdrawals? I don't know." Something amiss

John Madara is a 78-year-old retired mail carrier who has lived in Atlantic County his entire life.

He doesn't know what the cause is either. But he remembers trapping muskrat and mink in local woods "where clear streams flowed."

That was about 60 years ago. Today, those streams are just muddy trickles, even in wet years, he said. Problem is, he said, few people go back into the woods anymore to even know what's going on.

The Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, which sprawls across most of South Jersey, is an integral part of the ecologically sensitive Pinelands. In places, the aquifer rises to within a few feet of the land surface.

The Pinelands Preservation Alliance, an environmental group, says the question of whether water is disappearing is increasing in importance as demand grows for exportation of Pinelands water to growing areas outside the region, especially the shore.

"The water supply challenges facing Atlantic County are not just a county issue," wrote Rich Bizub, an alliance hydrologist, in a recent newsletter. "They are a Pinelands issue, since the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer system underlies and sustains the entire Pinelands region."

Scientists are beginning to take a much broader look, currently sinking hundreds of small monitoring wells. The six-year study focuses broadly on three "representative" areas: a protected and relatively unaltered watershed in Wharton State Forest, as well as more developed watersheds in the Waterford-Winslow area and at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway.

Just a small drop in the groundwater table can have significant impacts on the distribution of plants and animals around streams and wetlands, said Robert Zampella, chief scientist for the state Pinelands Commission.

His staff is focusing on this relationship for the regional study, which also includes researchers from Rutgers University, the U.S. Geological Survey, the DEP and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Pinelands Commission wanted to launch this type of study in the late 1980s but did not have funding, Zampella said.

"The concern for water supply preceded the commission," he said. "This has been a longtime concern."

Zampella said past commission studies of water levels in Wharton State Forest have shown only seasonal fluctuations related to precipitation. But Wharton is also the largest protected tract in Pinelands, he said.

But he is unwilling to commit to any sweeping judgments of what may be going on in other parts of the Pinelands until all the scientific data are collected. Plenty of theories

Pierre Lacombe is a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He is working on the Cape May end of the dual regional water study, exploring whether well withdrawals affect vernal ponds. These ponds usually fill in over wet winters and springs, providing important breeding habitat for salamanders and frogs.

Lacombe has little doubt that development is affecting groundwater in localized situations, such as problems that led to the state revoking a permit for a municipal well in Berlin recently because it was drawing down a stream that supported the globally rare swamp pink.

But he said there simply is not enough evidence to prove development is having the sweeping effects that Demitroff asserts. There may never be, he said.

"They are theories, and he's trying to prove them," Lacombe said. "A lot of the information Mark has, unfortunately, is anecdotal."

Demitroff has spent several years poring over old maps and aerial photographs. He says they show lakes and ponds where none exist today.

He has also talked to longtime residents of the region, like Madara. Many related memories of swimming and fishing in lakes that no longer exist, Demitroff said.

Eric Hensel, 65, grows vegetables on a farm started by his grandfather, a German immigrant, a century ago in Buena Vista Township, Atlantic County.

He says "a general lowering of the water table" has occurred over the past century, and he believes it's affecting the entire Pinelands. He estimates the drop at about 4 feet.

At one time, logs had to be laid across the main dirt road to the family farm because it flooded almost every winter and spring. Now it almost never floods, Hensel said.

He remembers catching sunfish in local streams 35 to 40 years ago. "Now a lot of (the streams) aren't even muddy; they're just bone dry," he said. Who's to blame?

Hensel says everyone is to blame, including farmers such as himself who use massive amounts of water for irrigation.

"It's been a gradual thing," he said. "It's each of the houses going up, land being cleared, the landscape being changed where water is not allowed to permeate into the ground. In agriculture, we are using more water than ever. If this is allowed to go on, the next generation or the one after that will be in trouble."

Anecdotal accounts like this may be compelling but do not constitute scientific evidence, Lacombe said.

The problem is that no one ever kept formal records of when these lakes and swamps were filled, he said. This is important in order to gauge what impact droughts and wet periods have had on them, he explained.

Also unknown is whether many of these areas were affected by damming, draining and road improvements over the decades, Lacombe said, adding that sediments and forest litter also could have filled in these depressions over time.

Memories can also become fuzzy, Lacombe said. Looking back, ahead

Conventional thought holds that natural lakes never existed in South Jersey, but were created by damming of rivers and streams after the arrival of Europeans, Lacombe said.

The numerous small and shallow bowl-like depressions that dot the coastal plain in the Pinelands are believed to be ancient bay-like areas left by the retreat of the ocean as sea level dropped over the millennia, he said.

Demitroff, however, believes they were formed by the erosive power of fierce arctic-like winds that swept off glaciers just to the north during the last ice age.

Whatever caused the depressions, Demitroff argues they were much wetter in the past. Old books about the region refer to spungs, cripples, blue holes and savannas as being common.

Demitroff argues that only remnants of these features exist today, usually in areas where surrounding land has been protected. He says it would be short-sighted to ignore landscape changes in the past when planning for the future of the region's groundwater supplies. "Most of the locals know about this," he said. "It's not brain surgery, it's not rocket science. We all know that the water table is disappearing. We have a long-term record - being and living here."


Site Administrator
Sep 17, 2002
I would tend to agree that the water drop is caused by excess withdraw. For example in Marlton at the southern end when a new water pumping station came online, the water in a local lake and stream vanished. And years ago from the Forked River Mountains you only saw a few tall structures, when now you see quite a few water towers. It has to come from somewhere!



Staff member
Oct 25, 2002
Pines; Bamber area
Very interesting article Steve. I love the water of the pines. Water is life. I was at a small stream south of the Forked River mountains yesterday that will blow you away with its beauty. We should visit it when we do Aserdaten.

Mark obviously loves his area and is trying to understand it as best he can. I salute him for it. I can assure you I have not seen a change in my area of the pines over the last 25 years. We can thank the people who started this process of saving the pines many years ago; Byrne, Florio, Pierce, etc (not a complete list, it might be interesting to see who they all were; sort of like an honor roll). In fact, every day I spend in the pines I think about what it would be like if there were no preservation movement to save them at all.



Thank, Steve. I picked up the Courier Post after seeing that.
Along the same lines:

Date: 28 Mar 2004
From: "Steven Sacks-Wilner" {}

By Lawrence Hajna, Courier-Post Staff, March 28, 2004

Scientific and political interest in the Pinelands' water resources,
building over the past several years, is beginning to show a shift in
the way the supply is viewed.

While broad studies of the region's water are just getting under way,
a study released in December points to warning signs for water
supplies in southeastern Atlantic County.

In 2002, Gov. James E. McGreevey, spurred by a deepening drought,
placed three Atlantic County communities - Egg Harbor Township,
Galloway and Hamilton - under a construction moratorium because of
fears that development was sucking up too much water.

The three communities are targeted to absorb growth under the
Pinelands zoning plan.

In December, the state Department of Environmental Protection quietly
released a follow-up study to the moratorium. It asserts that water
demand in Atlantic County may already outstrip the "dependable or
sustainable yield" of the region's aquifers.

It noted that stream and groundwater levels reached record lows in
the 2002 drought, even though the dry spell was not nearly as deep as
previous droughts.

Increases in so-called impervious cover - parking lots, roads,
buildings - may be exacerbating the situation by hindering the ability
of precipitation to percolate into the ground, the study said.
Instead, it's being channeled into streams and rivers - and out to the

The DEP study goes on to suggest that increased pumping of water from
the Atlantic City 800-foot Sand, a deep aquifer that supplies water to
densely populated coastal communities, may be affecting levels in the
overlying Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, which provides more than 90
percent of the water in the region's streams and wetlands.

Researchers are just now launching broader studies of water supplies
in the Pinelands and in Cape May County, just outside the Pinelands
National reserve. The Legislature approved $7.5 million for the
studies in 2001.

* * *

Reach Lawrence Hajna at (856) 486-2466 or

# # #

Steven L. Sacks-Wilner, Esq.
489 Dutchtown-Zion Rd
Skillman, NJ 08558-1307
Tel. & Voice Mail: 908.359.8884
Fax: 908.359.5550