Water quality and streamflow characteristics, Raritan River Basin, New Jersey

Water-Resources Investigations Report 14-74

Prepared in cooperation with the State of New Jersey, Department of Environmental Protection. Originally produced by the USGS New Jersey Water Resources Division.



The findings of a problem-oriented river-system investigation of the stream-quality and streamflow characteristics of the Raritan River basin (1,105 square miles or 2,862 square kilometers drainage area) are described. The investigation covers mainly the period 1955-72.

Precipitation in the basin is classified as ample and averages 47 inches or 120 centimeters per year (3-5 inches or 8-12 centimeters per month). During the study period four general precipitation trends were noted: less than normalin 1955-61 and 1966-70; extreme drought in 1962-66; and above normal in 1971-72.

Analyses of streamflow measurements at eight gaging stations indicate a general trend toward lower flows during the study period, which is attributed to generally lower than normal precipitation. Highest flows were observed in 1958, concurrent with maximum annual precipitation; whereas lowest flows were observed in 1965 during extreme drought conditions.

Non-tidal streams in the basin are grouped into three general regions of similar chemical quality based upon predominant constituents and dissolved-solids concentration during low-flow conditions. The predominant cations in solution in all regions are calcium and magnesium (usually exceeding 60 percent of total cation content). In headwater streams of the North and South Branch Raritan Rivers, bicarbonate is the predominant anion; a combination of sulfate, chloride, and nitrate are the predominant anions in the other two regions. The dissolved-solids concentration of streams in areas little influenced by man's activities generally range from 40 to 200 mg/L. Those in areas influenced by man often range much higher sometimes exceeding 800 mg/L. Suspended-sediment yields in the basin range from 25 to 500 tons per square mile annually.

The water quality of the Raritan River and most tributaries above Manville (784 square miles of 2,030 square kilometers drainage area) generally is good for most industrial, domestic, and recreational uses, although pollution has been reported locally in some areas. A comparison of chemical analyses of water collected at several sampling sites in the 1920's with more recent data, however, indicate that there has been a significant increase in sulfate, chloride, and nitrate ions transported per unit of streamflow. These increases reflect increased waste-water discharges and nutrients in agricultural runoff in the upper basin.

Trends in the dissolved-solids and dissolved-oxygen concentation of water in the Raritan and MIllstone Rivers above their confluence at Manville are described. The dissolved solids of the Millstone River are shown to increase, particularly at low streamflows. For example, at a flow of 100 cubic feet per second (2.83 cubic meters per second) this river tansported 13 percent more dissolved solids in 1969-70 than it did in 1957-58. A similar trend, however, was not apparent on the Raritan River. This phenomenon is attributed to dilution provided since 1964 by upstream reservoir releases during low flows.

With the exception of low-flow periods on the Raritan River, dissolved-oxygen concentrations showed little or no significant time trends at Manville on either the Raritan or Millstone River. An improvement in dissolved-oxygen content at flows lower than 100 cubic feet per second (2.83 cubic meters per second) is observed with time on the Raritan River. This improvement is attributed to generally better quality water and dilution of nonconservative pollutants by upstream reservoir releases during low flows.

The Raritan River between Manville and Perth Amboy flows through a large urban and industrial complex. Much of this reach is tidal. Detrimental activities of man are reflected in higher concentrations of most constituents below Manville than those observed upstream. For example, between Manville and the head of tide near South Bound Brook, the maximum concentration of dissolved solids observed during the study period increased from 464 to 1,520 mg/L; orthophosphates from 0.93 to 2.3 mg/L; phenolic materials from 22 to 312 μg/L; and coliform bacteria from 13,300 to 100,000 colonies per 100 milliliters. A general deterioration in water quality with time in the river below Manville is demonstrated through comparisons of dissolved-oxygen and biochemical-oxygen demand data collected between the late 1920's and early 1970's.

Several time-of-travel measurements within the basin are reported. These data provide reasonable estimates of the time required for soluble contaminants to pass through particular parts of the river system. For example, the peak concentration of a contaminant injected into the river system at Clinton at a flow of 100 cubic feet per second (2.83 cubic meters per second) would be expected to travel to the head of tide near South Bound Brook, about 34 miles (55 kilometers), in about 70 hours; but at a flow of 50 cubic feet per second (1.42 cubic meters per second) the traveltime would increase to about 125 hours.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Water quality and streamflow characteristics, Raritan River Basin, New Jersey
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Trenton, NJ
Contributing office(s):
New Jersey Water Science Center
vi, 82 p.
United States
New Jersey
Other Geospatial:
Raritan River Basin