A DEP proposal would bestow 749 river miles, including a 16-mile stretch of Jacobs Creek in Hopewell Township (pictured above in a Google Maps file photo), with protections meant to preserve water quality.

A March 4 announcement by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has not only given local officials and environmentalists a reason to celebrate. The proposal, they say, might also give them another tool to challenge the controversial PennEast natural gas pipeline.

The DEP proposal would bestow 749 river miles, including a 16-mile stretch of Jacobs Creek in Hopewell Township, with protections meant to preserve water quality. This status—Category One in DEP lingo—includes preventing development within 300 feet of the stream and limiting what can be discharged into the water.

The protected portion of Jacobs Creek would run from the creek’s source in northern Hopewell Township more than 16 river miles southwest until its confluence with Woolsey Brook, on Jacobs Creek Road close to the township municipal building. The Category 1 designation also applies to all of the creek’s tributaries in that stretch.

The DEP selected this segment of Jacobs Creek because testing and wildlife observation showed the water quality to be high, while a relative lack of impervious surfaces—like pavement—in the area means contaminants from runoff are less likely to wind up in the creek.

Local officials said high-quality water has an elevated importance in Hopewell Township, where 60 percent of residents receive their drinking water from a well.

“You don’t have to live in Hopewell Township long to realize how important clean water is,” Hopewell Township Mayor Kristin McLaughlin said. “With a well, you think about what is actually in the ground, in the water. I was thrilled to see DEP was taking a closer look. Anything the DEP can do to protect the streams flowing through the township is a benefit to everybody.”

The Hopewell-based Watershed Institute played a integral role in Jacobs Creek’s new status. Watershed Institute executive director Jim Waltman said volunteers from his organization have been monitoring the creek for several years, and giving that data to the DEP. The institute also has brought the DEP out to the creek on occasion.

Work of local volunteers like the ones from Watershed Institute has become increasingly vital for the protection of environmental resources, Waltman said. And the DEP increasingly has accepted the work of volunteers as it looks to protect waterways before they become polluted. In the March 4 announcement, the DEP said the proposal came about in part because it generally costs less to prevent pollution than to restore the waters after they become polluted.

Regardless of its reasoning, the DEP decision has validated the work done by groups like Watershed Institute and municipalities like Hopewell Township, Waltman said.

“We’re really pleased with this proposal,” Waltman said. “This is one of the state’s most important tools for protecting the cleanest streams and rivers and lakes and ponds we have. This will ensure a good chunk of Jacobs Creek will receive this special extra protection.”

Both McLaughlin and Waltman hoped this new status would include protection from the PennEast pipeline. The proposed 120-mile underground pipeline would carry natural gas from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, to an interconnection in Hopewell Township, on Blackwell Road. It would require creating a 125-foot-wide path the length of the pipeline to make room for its infrastructure.

Along the way, it crosses streams, rivers and creeks, including the protected segment of Jacobs Creek.

Residents along the pipeline route, including those in Hopewell Valley, have opposed the pipeline since PennEast announced it in 2014. McLaughlin said she believes residents can use the Category 1 status of the creek as a tool to fight the pipeline, adding that the Clean Water Act is state’s most common reason for denying permits.

Waltman said, with PennEast, the DEP has a chance to show what a Category 1 designation actually means.

“In the best professional and scientific judgement of the DEP, if doing something would harm the water quality, they can’t allow it,” Waltman said. “The PennEast pipeline has already proposed to cross over and under more than three dozen streams that have this designation. We’ve argued, and so have many others, that if you can dig through a Category 1 stream then what can’t you do?”

The DEP proposal must first become official before Jacobs Creek receives the Category 1 protection. A public hearing on the proposal will be held 1 p.m. Monday, April 8 at the New Jersey Forensic Science Technology Center Auditorium, 1200 Negron Drive in Hamilton. The DEP will also accept written comments until May 3.

These would be the first new Category 1 waterways since 2008, when the DEP gave the designation to 686 miles of rivers and streams. Forty-four percent of the state’s waters are already protected at a C1 level or higher, according to the DEP. This includes a portion of Stony Brook in northern Hopewell.

The new proposal would make it two highly protected streams in the township, something that should residents should see as an accomplishment, Waltman said.

“People should feel proud—proud of the town and proud of the history of environmental protection that’s allowed us to maintain streams that warrant this kind of designation,” he said.