Summer’s First Algae Blooms Highlight Need for Stormwater Utilities, Advocates Say

Department of Environmental Protection reports ‘HABs’ in Warren, Mercer counties, prompting fears of lake closures for the second straight year
Credit: Diego Sideburns via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Algae bloom

The first harmful algae blooms in two New Jersey lakes this summer have renewed fears that many lakes will be closed to swimmers and boaters for the second straight year, but conservationists say the problem could be addressed in the long term if local governments set up stormwater utilities.

The new blooms, known as HABs (harmful algal blooms), were confirmed last month by the state Department of Environmental Protection at Mountain Lake in Warren County and Rosedale Lake in Mercer County, recalling the 39 confirmed and 70 suspected outbreaks that closed dozens of lakes last summer. In both of the newly reported sites, DEP said there’s a “moderate risk of adverse health effects” if lake users come into contact with the blooms.

Last year’s blooms prompted environmentalists to predict that the growths would become a chronic problem unless state and local authorities find a way of reducing the flow of lawn fertilizer, farm runoff and septic-system leakage that encourages the HABs to form.

Although New Jersey can’t on its own control the rising global temperatures that also contribute to bloom growth, or the naturally occurring “cyanobacteria” that are part of the mix, the state can take steps to reduce the stormwater runoff containing bloom-friendly contaminants, conservationists say.

The Clean Stormwater and Flood Reduction Act, signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in March last year, allows, but does not require, municipalities to collect fees based on the amount of runoff generated by impervious surface on a property.

More green infrastructure

The revenue must be used to pay for stormwater-reduction measures such as green infrastructure that lets rainfall soak into the ground naturally, filtering out contaminants, rather than running off into storm drains or waterways.

The need for green infrastructure is increased by the stronger, more frequent rainstorms that are expected to come with climate change, and by the combined sewer overflow systems in New Jersey’s older cities that can be overwhelmed by heavy rainfall, and discharge sewage into rivers or lakes, advocates say.

The formation of stormwater utilities, currently undergoing implementation by DEP, would be an important step toward preventing the formation of HABs, said Bill Kibler, director of policy for Raritan Headwaters, an environmental nonprofit that works to protect water quality in the Raritan watershed of Somerset, Morris and Hunterdon counties. “That would be a huge step towards addressing stormwater runoff,” he said.

In a stormwater utility, owners of commercial or residential properties are charged based on the amount of impervious surface they have, which is a good indicator of the quantity of runoff generated, Kibler said.

The law also creates credits for property owners to remove impervious surface, and install green infrastructure like rain gardens or green roofs, thus reducing runoff, he said.

Kibler argued that stormwater utilities have significant long-term potential to fix the HAB problem, simply by stopping pollutants from getting into lakes and streams. “A lot of lake communities could benefit from a stormwater utility which would help keep the fertilizers and the animal waste from winding up in streams and lakes and feeding the cyanobacteria,” he said.

Funding is not among COVID-19 cuts

In November, Murphy, facing widespread complaints from lake users and the local economies that were being hurt by the closures, provided $13.5 million to tackle the problem. The funding included $10 million in principal-forgiveness grants for the upgrade of sewer and stormwater systems; $2.5 million for demonstration projects on treatment and prevention, and a further $1 million for local projects to control so-called non-point pollution such as fertilizer runoff. A DEP spokesman said on Tuesday that the funding is not among the cuts resulting from COVID-19-related budget reductions.

Elliott Ruga, director of policy and communication at the Highlands Coalition, said the cost of setting up a utility can be met from a number of parties.

“The largest aspect of HAB that we have control over is to better manage stormwater,” Ruga said. He said the cost of setting up a utility can be shared by state and local government, and perhaps by individuals who live by affected lakes. “Forming a stormwater utility is a very equitable way, on a regional level, to contribute significant dollars to the solution,” he said.

One location where the cost of such a utility could be widely spread is Lake Hopatcong, one of those affected by last year’s closures, Ruga said. All five municipalities bordering the lake would contribute to the new mechanism, reducing the individual cost.

“The individual cost would be very small, and they would have an effective mechanism to collect sufficient funding to implement responsive stormwater management,” he said. “Everyone who has anything to do with a recreational lake in New Jersey has a part to play.”

In May, the DEP issued a color-coded warning system to alert the public to different levels of HABs — which can cause skin irritation.

“We can’t predict with certainty when harmful algal blooms will occur, but with this enhanced communication and color-coded alert index, we hope that the appropriate responses to harmful algal blooms will become much more predictable and targeted, which should provide much more certainty as well as flexibility for residents and businesses to make sensible decisions,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe.