DEP Funds Techniques to Fight Algae Blooms but Says They’re Unlikely to Fix the Problem Soon

Critics say only green infrastructure and public education will stop nutrients entering lakes
Credit: Suzanne Phillips (CC BY 2.0)
The Department of Environmental Protection concedes there are no quick fixes for the algae blooms.

The Department of Environmental Protection said on Tuesday that there’s unlikely to be a quick fix to conditions that created an outbreak of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in 39 New Jersey lakes last summer, forcing the closure of some for swimming, boating and fishing.

The department announced nine grants totaling $2.5 million to local governments, utilities and environmental commissions to gauge the effectiveness of various technologies to treat and prevent the blooms.

But it admitted that none of them is likely on its own to stop the blooms, which clogged and closed lakes including Lake Hopatcong, a major recreational asset, for a time last summer.

“While the projects represent short-term actions, it is unlikely that they alone will prevent the recurrence of harmful algal blooms,” the DEP said in a statement. “Long-term prevention will require years of efforts at the state and local levels to reduce the flow of nutrients into waterways.”

The solutions, it said, would include persuading homeowners and farmers to reduce their use of phosphorus-heavy fertilizers, and to make sure residential septic systems don’t leak. Both factors help to create conditions for algae to thrive.

Made worse by climate change

The problem is also fed by climate change, which warms the waters, and adds to an algae-friendly environment, but is beyond the ability of any one state to curb.

Many of the funded projects are designed to address excessive levels of nutrients that are driven into lakes by stormwater runoff, DEP said. The runoff is exacerbated by impervious surfaces that prevent it soaking naturally into the soil where contaminants are filtered out before reaching waterways.

Grantees include the Lake Hopatcong Commission which was awarded $500,000 for a 24-month project to evaluate the use of measures including aerators and rain gardens to reduce nutrients, and the City of Newark’s Department of Water and Sewer Utilities which got $475,000 to test the use of ultrasonic devices to disrupt the photosynthesis of bacteria and prevent HABs growing in one treatment plant.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology was awarded $500,000 over three years to install and evaluate a technology that increases the dissolved oxygen (DO) level in water by pumping microscopic bubbles into the water.

The grants are part of a $13.5 million program announced by Gov. Phil Murphy last year in an effort to curb the blooms but which were dismissed by some environmentalists at the time as being insufficient to overcome climate change and the long-running use of nutrients. The new awards were made to projects that are ready to implement their technologies this summer, and which were expected to succeed, DEP said.

Other efforts

As part of a broader strategy to manage HABs, the department also proposed $10 million for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund that would fund water-quality projects like setting up centralized wastewater collection to replace septic systems. And it is considering applications for another $1 million to fight the blooms under a grant program focused on nonpoint source pollution — pollution caused when contaminants such as agricultural fertilizers are washed off and carried into nearby waterways or ground water.

Republican Sens. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris and Somerset), Joe Pennacchio (R-Essex, Morris, and Passaic), and Steve Oroho (R-Morris, Sussex and Warren) welcomed the grants as a step toward controlling the blooms that kept lake users out of the water last summer, and hurt the local recreation-based economy.

“This is the good news we’ve been waiting for, and our hope is the state is beginning to recognize its responsibility to maintain these valuable assets,” said Bucco, in a statement.

But Elliott Ruga, head of policy and communications for the Highlands Coalition, an environmental group, said the technologies on trial won’t be enough to curb the problem unless they include the widespread use of green infrastructure like rain gardens to filter out algae-causing contaminants before they reach the waterways.

He called for the creation of stormwater utilities that could charge fees to landowners based on the volume of stormwater that their property generates from its impervious surfaces. A year ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation that enables, but does not require, local governments to establish such utilities, which would use fee revenue to set up stormwater controls.

Decades of poor decisions

Ruga said the new grants will help in limited ways but won’t be enough to overcome decades of poor land-use decisions that have loaded the soil with nutrients, and won’t persuade some municipalities to impose what they see as a “rain tax” to fund stormwater utilities.

“For lakes like Lake Hopatcong that span municipalities where there has been dense development, the state is not going to rescue their lake, and this amount of money will not fix the problem,” he said.

Even though a warming climate contributes to algae growth, the most important factor is nutrient-laden runoff, Ruga said, and that can only be curbed through the cooperation of state, county, and municipal authorities to create stormwater utilities and build green infrastructure.

Amy Goldsmith, New Jersey state director for Clean Water Action, praised the DEP’s action but said it could be offset by homeowners or landscapers who ignore state restrictions on nutrient use for their lawns.

“It’s land use that’s creating the problem in the water, and then you add the heat and the sunshine, and you get a toxic brew,” she said.

She urged homeowners to ensure that their septic tanks don’t leak, and to avoid using lawn fertilizers that run off to feed algal blooms in places like Lake Hopatcong.

Exposure to blooms can produce skin rashes, allergies, flu-like symptoms, and irritation of the eyes and respiratory system, DEP said. The blooms frequently form dense mats “resembling pea soup or spilled paint,” it said.

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