One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Pine Barrens, are its surface water bodies of streams, rivers and wetlands. The streams are typically slow moving and shallow because of the very low topographic gradient, or relief, of the Outer Coastal Plain of New Jersey. As a result, there are almost no natural lakes within the Pine Barrens. The large ponds and lakes are therefore, the result of former human activities such as damming streams to produce power for sawmills, gristmills, and other early industries. Today, lakes and large ponds are typically associated with agricultural activities such as cranberry and blueberry farming.
Within the Pine Barrens there are four major river systems. Each of these river systems drain an area of land known as watersheds. This includes stormwater runoff from natural areas as well as developed areas. Runoff from developed areas not only contains various contaminants, but results in higher than normal flows in streams and tributaries.
The largest watershed is the Mullica River Watershed and includes the Mullica River, Wading River, Batsto River and Oswego River. These four rivers empty into Great Bay and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean. The second largest watershed is the Rancocas Creek Watershed. This is the only watershed that drains to the west into the Delaware River. The next largest is the Great Egg Harbor River Watershed, which includes the Great Egg Harbor River and Tuckahoe River. This watershed drains into Great Egg Harbor and then into the Atlantic Ocean. The smallest of the watersheds is located in Ocean County and is called the Toms River Watershed. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, however, considers the Toms River drainage area and four other smaller drainage areas as the Barnegat Bay Watershed. These four drainage systems include the Westecunk Creek, Cedar Creek, Mill Creek and Wrangel Brook. All of these streams and rivers drain into Barnegat Bay before discharging into the ocean. Another river system that is not typically considered a “major” Pinelands river system is the Maurice River. However, portions of three Pinelands towns do drain into this river system.
One of the characteristic qualities of typical Pine Barrens streams is the unusual brown or so-called tea-colored appearance of the water. This color is the result of the water containing a high content of iron and by natural vegetative dyes such as tannin. In addition, under natural conditions these streams and rivers are quite acidic, with a pH of 5.0 or less. The nitrate-nitrogen concentration, which is an indicator of nutrients (fertilizers and septic systems), is very low under natural conditions, typically around 0.17 parts per million (ppm). The federal drinking water standard is 10 ppm, and the requirement for surface water and groundwater in the Pinelands is 2 ppm. Because of the sandy nature of soils in the Pine Barrens, the area is very susceptible to surface and groundwater contamination.