Developers may have more leeway in building near some of North Jersey’s most sensitive streams, rivers and reservoirs after the state changed a water protection policy last month.

The rule rewritten by the state Department of Environmental Protection covers when builders can disturb the 300-foot buffers around so-called Category One waters such as the Pequannock and Pompton rivers and the Oradell and Wanaque reservoirs.

While not all environmental groups are alarmed, some are calling it a cave-in to developers.

“It’s a major weakening,” said Bill Wolfe, a former DEP employee and director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group.

Ross Kushner, executive director of the Pequannock River Coalition, called the changes “troublesome.”

They make it easier for builders to get the kind of waiver that was sought at Federal Hill, the Bloomingdale woods where conservationists have been fighting a plan for 360 town houses, Kushner said. The state turned down that request, but the new policy “seems to open the door more for those kinds of waivers, which could be a definite problem for us,” Kushner warned.

The Category One program covers waters deemed vital for wildlife habitat and drinking supplies. It generally forbids major construction within 300 feet of the water, unless the state grants an exception.

Environmental groups hailed the program when it was expanded four years ago to cover more territory. A state proposal now under review could protect hundreds of additional miles of streams and rivers, including sections of the Ramapo River and tributaries to the Wanaque Reservoir.

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