COVID-19 isn’t the only reason why swimmers should keep their distance this summer at some New Jersey lakes.
“We have been seeing more frequent and more intensive harmful algal blooms during the summertime. Harmful algal bloom status can change within hours, so because of that it is really difficult to pinpoint whether a location has a presence of harmful algal bloom or not unless the location has been tested,” said Meiyin Wu, director of the New Jersey Center for Water, Science and Technology at Montclair State University.
The pea-soup-like harmful algal blooms (HABs), also known as cyanobacteria, have begun to pop up in New Jersey once again.
The blooms produce toxins that are harmful to humans and can be fatal to pets. They have been identified in a handful of lakes including Lake Hopatcong and Greenwood Lake as of July 22, according to an interactive map by the Department of Environmental Protection.
“There’s watch level, advisory level, warning level and danger level. So far, most of the testing results have been somewhere between watch and advisory level. It is very difficult for people to just look at the water and know if there are or there are not harmful algal blooms present,” Wu said. “It really requires laboratory testing to confirm.”
The interactive map and warning signs around lakes are part of a $2.5 million expenditure approved by the Department of Environmental Protection for projects to evaluate innovative mitigation and and prevention strategies against the HABs.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, accuses the DEP of catering to political pressure and certain businesses instead of taking responsibility. He said the color index, which was part of a $13 million initiative in state funding to mitigate the blooms, will not fix the problem.
“Warning systems are fine, but it’s not dealing with the root cause of the problem, which is stormwater runoff, and pollution and climate change. Those are the problems that the lakes are facing, and that’s a long-term problem,” Tittel said.
State Sen. Joe Pennacchio represents the district that encompasses both Greenwood Lake and Lake Hopatcong. He said the state needs to do more to help businesses that may be hit hard by the blooms on top of pandemic-related losses.
“Those lakes are not owned by municipalities. Any statewide water is owned by the state of New Jersey. Their water, their tax, their responsibility,” he said. “I wonder how they are going to survive. I would like the science and data applied to the lake, very similar to the issues that we’re having with COVID. It doesn’t seem that we have the science and data applied to these edicts that are going on. That way it could be explained and have transparency for the public.”
The DEP said, in addition to investigating reports by the public of suspected HABs, it also conducts lake flights every Tuesday from May to October to estimate algal activity. They strongly advise anyone heading to a lake to use the interactive map to check whether or not it’s safe to swim.