By Jaimie Julia Winters

The town of Clifton has begun felling trees on the northern edge of Alonzo F. Bonsal Preserve, beginning a year-long project to replace and relocate a sewer line in the Passaic County town.

Last November, Friends of the Bonsal Wildlife Preserve learned that about 30 trees on the 21-acre property owned by Montclair would have to go in order for Clifton to replace an 80-year-old sewer line that runs under the property and services Clifton residences that border the preserve. The trees were cut down along the preserve’s border about a month ago.

Jonathan Grupper of the friends looks over the Third River.
Jonathan Grupper of the friends looks over the Third River.

Montclair has owned the preserve since the 1970s, when a citizens group lobbied to save the woodland from development. The Bonsal Preserve was named after a local resident whose family’s contribution augmented Green Acres funding for the purchase of the site. The urban preserve consists of wetlands and uplands surrounding the Third River, a major tributary of the lower Passaic River watershed. The river was once called Pearl River due to the discovery of the Queen Pearl or Paterson Pearl found in a river’s mussel population. The Paterson Pearl, a 93 grain pink pearl, was one of the first freshwater pearl to be discovered in the United States. Today, the mussels are long gone and the river is now the Third River as designated by cartographers.

The Friends of the Bonsal Preserve are asking for volunteers to monitor the construction.
The Friends of the Bonsal Preserve are asking for volunteers to monitor the construction.

There are also 9.12 acres of adjacent land located to the north of the preserve which are controlled by the North Jersey District Water Commission for its Wanaque Reservoir Balancing Tank, which provide additional habitat for wildlife.

In 2001, the sewer line burst and Clifton was able to patch it with minimal damage to the flora. In 2008, the line again needed repairs and the town began plans to replace it. During that repair, 10 trees needed to go and Montclair was promised replacement of those trees, but the land still remains cleared.

Ten years later, plans to replace and relocate the antiquated infrastructure are finally taking shape, but trees that are in the way of the construction are marked for felling.

Jonathan Grupper of the Friends said the deforestation could have been worse in the wake of the $5 million project.

To prevent another rupture, Clifton proposed a more preserve-friendly approach with a special technique called horizontal-directional drilling, rather than requiring a pumping station or further deforestation. Six 20-by-12-foot pits - three along the Montclair-Clifton border and three inside the preserve - will be dug down about 40 feet, allowing the piping to be installed through tunnels underground. This would minimize the impact on the preserve, said Clifton City Manager Dominick Villano. Grupper credits him for coming up with the engineering of the underground work.

“The line will be re-directed along the edge of Bonsal,” Grupper said. “Though that runs uphill on the surface, the line will be pitched underground steadily downward to be gravity-fed as sewage needs to run downhill. Only six spots will be impacted to varying degrees, mostly along the northern border of the preserve.”

As of last week, some of the pits had been constructed along Clifton’s border. After the sewer line is constructed, the pits will come down and be replaced with manholes.

The Friends have been asking Clifton for a construction schedule, but Villano said that the town is focusing on the project as a whole, although he appreciates the environmentalists’ focus on the trees. The project is expected to be completed by April 2019, he said.

“For now, we have to get to the other side of the brook before fish spawning season begins [the end of May],” Villano said.

Back in November when the group first found out about the tree felling, things looked bleak as Grupper said Clifton’s plans weren’t so transparent. Since then, Villano has opened the lines of communication, and plans now call for the Friends to be part of the discussion.

On April 11, Clifton held a meeting at Montclair’s Town Hall in which the Friends were told that for every tree cut down - including those taken down in 2008 - Clifton will replace it with 10 new trees.

Montclair’s Arborist Stephen Schuckman is expected to oversee the planting.

“We want the trees not only to be a certain caliber in size, but native species, attract wildlife and safeguarded for the long haul,” said Grupper.

Neglia Engineering, who is overseeing the project, began sending updates last week which are to continue throughout the project on a steady basis to the town and the Friends, Grupper said.

“So far it’s been a big success of private citizens [and] government, including the state, county and towns, coming together,” Grupper said.

Another plus of the project is that preserve land encroached upon by neighbors will be taken back, said Villano.

Grupper is concerned with Montclair’s lack of oversight of the project. “No one from the town is involved,” he said.

Grupper does credit First Ward Councilman William Hurlock on hearing the Friends’ concerns when they first approached the town back in November.

Grupper is not completely trusting all will go as planned with the promise of as little impact as possible, pointing to the clearings made in 2008. As the preserve will remain open during the year of construction, the group is calling on volunteers to keep a close watch on the project. They have also recruited their own engineer.

“Montclair is not overseeing the effort, and is instead relying on Clifton officials and an engineering firm they’ve contracted to monitor the job and track its impact on the preserve. So the Friends of Bonsal would like to recruit a core group of volunteers to second that oversight by keeping an eye on progress and reporting in to an engineer we’ve enlisted for consultation. If you’re interested, please email,” the Friends’ Facebook page states.