Centenary University professor shares expertise in study of highlands waterway
Focus on the Musconetcong River gives students the opportunity to engage in research while investigating local water resources
HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) – The Musconetcong River rises out of Lake Hopatcong and flows for more than 45 miles to the Delaware River. This important tributary is the research subject for Julie LaBar, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science at Centenary University.
In keeping with the University’s reputation for faculty scholarship and community engagement, Dr. LaBar studies local water resources with projects that also provide hands-on experience for the next generation of environmental scientists.
“At Centenary, I have been focusing on stream water quality in the Musconetcong River,” she said. Dr. LaBar has investigated the effects and remediation of contaminants in water and is also interested in the impact of trace elements caused by climate change. Her expertise directly targets the area of northwest New Jersey known as the Highlands, which stretches about 60 miles from Phillipsburg in the southwest to Oakland in the northeast— including Hackettstown, where Centenary is located.
In addition to analyzing the quality of water in the Highlands region, Dr. LaBar’s Musconetcong River projects provide firsthand research experience for the University’s students, as well as those at local high schools. In fact, Centenary’s science programs provide many opportunities for students to partner with faculty on independent research projects. Centenary University senior Samantha Johnson of Hackettstown received funding from the Independent College Fund of New Jersey (ICFNJ) to study microplastics in the Musconetcong’s sediment. She will present her results at the ICFNJ Undergraduate Research Symposium in April.
“As far as we can determine, this is the first time anyone has looked for these contaminants in this area of the river,” said Dr. LaBar. “In the future, we hope to expand microplastics work into other watersheds in the Highlands region and begin looking at trace metals in urban and suburban streams as a function of road salt applications.”
A local high school student is also investigating macroinvertebrates—small aquatic animals and the aquatic larval stages of insects—in the river under Dr. LaBar’s guidance. This includes searching for invasive species like the New Zealand mud snail. “Our project entails sampling in the fall and comparing the data to see if this invasive species is more prevalent at certain times of the year,” Dr. LaBar explained. The high school student participates through the Hunterdon County Vocational School District’s Environmental Sustainability and Engineering Academy (ESEA). ESEA also partners with Centenary to offer environmental science courses for college credit.
Dr. LaBar is director of the Centenary University Center for Sustainability, which fosters academic and non-academic partnerships in sustainable activities. She also serves on the board of directors of the Musconetcong Watershed Association (MWA), an independent non-profit group dedicated to protecting and improving the quality of the Musconetcong River and its watershed. Among the organization’s activities is monitoring the water quality of the stream, which intersects directly with Dr. LaBar’s research. The MWA is a member of the Highlands Coalition, a network of organizations and individuals working to protect, enhance, and restore the Highlands region and ensure drinking water quality.
Dr. LaBar participated in the planning and presentation of the coalition’s second annual Northwest New Jersey Rivers Conference in November 2020, which featured topics such as land use planning, conservation, ecotourism, economic development, and the impact of climate change on northern New Jersey. Originally scheduled for March 2020 at Centenary University’s David and Carol Lackland Center, the conference was postponed due to COVID-19 and, ultimately, presented virtually. All of the conference workshops and presentations are available for viewing on the New Jersey Highlands Coalition’s YouTube channel.