Will New Jerseyans be permanently stuck with harmful algal blooms in lakes as climate change warms waters and dumps heavier rains on the state?
The Department of Environmental Protection isn’t ready to say that the outbreaks of toxic green slime that closed some lake beaches in recent summers may become a permanent feature of the landscape, although it concedes it’s powerless to alter the course of climate change, at least in the short term.
Instead, the DEP is gathering data, working with affected municipalities and nonprofits, and keeping the public informed about the latest harmful algal blooms (HABs) so that people don’t try to use sections of lakes that may be closed off because of the algae.
“At this point, predicting whether or not this is just going to be our reality — that’s tough,” said Katie Angerone, the DEP’s associate commissioner for science and policy, in an interview with NJ Spotlight News. “But we’re going to do the hard work it takes to make this a situation we can manage.”
So far this year, state officials issued advisories for 13 cases of a harmful algal bloom, confirming blooms with a moderate risk of adverse health effects and increased potential for toxins above public health thresholds. They also list 11 “watch” cases, a less severe designation in which there is a suspected or confirmed bloom with the potential for irritative or allergenic health effects.
Where blooms have already appeared
The affected water bodies include Rosedale Lake, Mercer County on June 10 and Swartswood Lake, Sussex County on June 7, according to the DEP’s interactive algal bloom website.
The number of cases so far this summer is similar to those for 2020 and 2019 — when Gov. Phil Murphy dedicated $13.5 million and assigned state officials to manage the blooms. Last year, the state provided $4.4 million for their management, and now projects $20 million in principal-forgiveness funds that help municipalities with the cost of capital works like hookups to public sewers. About $250,000 from that category of funds has been used to connect public sewers to households in the Lake Hopatcong community of Crescent Cove, where the blooms have been a serious problem.
That may suggest the DEP is at least stopping the problem from getting worse by working to reduce the flow of nutrients like phosphorus from lawns, farm fields and leaking septic tanks, which create the right conditions for bloom formation, along with the warming and heavier rains that come with climate change.
“The one thing that we can really control in a world of climate change is nutrients,” Angerone said. “We’re working pretty hard with our communities to starve the blooms and re-establish the balance in our waterways.”
She said officials are asking communities to maintain septic systems, enhance stormwater management, build rain gardens, fertilize “responsibly,” and clean up after their pets.
Ways to stop the blooms
But she said curbing pollution from so-called nonpoint sources like lawn runoff — as opposed to specific sites like wastewater plants — is notoriously difficult to do.
Elliott Ruga, director of policy and communications for the nonprofit Highlands Coalition, praised the DEP’s efforts to educate the public on the harmful blooms, to monitor lakes, and to develop a tiered system of response to different blooms, allowing some lakeside businesses to stay open during less severe outbreaks.
“We cannot control the summer’s heat or the level of precipitation, but we can control the amount of phosphorus that washes into a waterbody by managing stormwater to filter out the nutrients before the stormwater enters the lake,” Ruga said.
Reducing nutrient flow in stormwater is the responsibility of municipalities, not the DEP, Ruga argued. If it was eliminated, it would also end the HABs problem because it is not caused by climate change alone, he said.
“Municipalities should exercise their carefully guarded home rule sovereignty — which they are quick to defend when violated by the state — and take responsibility for the consequences of their land-use policies,” he said.
One way of funding the local changes needed would be to create stormwater utilities, which charge fees to landowners based on their area of impervious surface that creates runoff, Ruga said. But some local officials reject the idea, calling it a “rain tax.”
What ‘you can’t even say’ around Lake Hopatcong
“You can’t even say the word around Lake Hopatcong, so they are almost guaranteeing that there will not be a cure for HABs,” he said.
Still, Angerone said there are early signs in some locations that the DEP’s efforts are paying off, such as a reduction in HABs at Lake Hopatcong, although it’s too soon to conclude that the state’s strategy for reducing harmful blooms overall is working.
And she said there are signs of increasing civic awareness of the problem, leading to the replacement of private septic systems by public sewers in some places, and the widespread creation of rain gardens, which allow stormwater to soak into the ground where pollutants are filtered out naturally.
“We are seeing areas sewered where to be honest I would not have bet that was going to happen,” she said. “We are seeing rain gardens installed throughout lake-sheds.”
Vic Poretti, a section chief in the DEP’s division of water monitoring and standards, said biological conditions vary from lake to lake and so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But it’s clear that nutrients are a primary driver of the blooms, and so the key in each case is to identify its source, and work to reduce it, he said.
“By the end of this season, we are going to have a wealth of data to characterize what’s going on in the state,” he said. “The data will help us determine our next steps on mitigation and prevention.”
For now, people planning a day at a lake would be well advised before leaving home to check DEP’s interactive website for the latest status on the harmful blooms, Angerone said.
“I do think we have to get used to checking the maps before we go to the park,” she said. “We’re acting aggressively, and keeping an eye on the situation so that we can keep folks safe, and make sure that they don’t waste a trip.”