Senate president tours Lake Hopatcong to see algal bloom for himself

The state’s top Democratic lawmaker on Thursday came to Lake Hopatcong for a tour of the sprawling North Jersey recreation waterway that’s been closed to swimming all summer because of a harmful algal bloom.

“What I do know is, we can’t let it continue,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, who boarded a boat with other officials to inspect the lake, the largest in New Jersey. “When you see the water green like this, it’s not healthy. It’s not safe.”

A number of factors are thought responsible for the outbreak, which also afflicted several other waterways in the state. They range from an unusually rainy year and warming temperatures to storm water runoff and the fact that only two of the four towns that border the lake have sanitary sewers. Runoff carries phosphates into the lake, which adds to the so-called nutrients also coming from septic tanks that feed the algae-like growths.

That — combined with a three-degree rise in lake surface temperature over the past 20 years — has cooked up an environmental and economic crisis that was toxic for business during a normally bustling season.

“It’s been devastating,” said Larry Orlans, first mate on the Floating Classroom, run by the Lake Hopatcong Foundation. “The restaurants, the marinas — everything you can think of. There’s a lot less traffic on the local roads. You don’t see people out on the water.”

Possible solutions were discussed Thursday.

“First and foremost, the obvious is you’ve got to fix the runoff, because that’s the fuel that’s feeding this algae bloom,” said Sweeney, who also took note of area’s natural beauty. “This is my first time here. This is gorgeous.”

Of course, any fix will cost money, officials said.

“We need a continuous funding source — something that’s reliable, that’s going to come every year — so we can institute some programs to stop this kind of pollution that’s going on here, with the phosphates coming in from the storm sewers and from the septics,” said Ron Smith, chairman of the Lake Hopatcong Commission.

“Only about 45% of the lake has sewers now,” said Martin Kane, chairman of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation. “It’s something that I think has been allowed to go for too long. Both our mayors in the two towns affected — Hopatcong and Jefferson — are both dedicated to work toward full sewers of at least the watershed of their towns.”

Also on hand were the Republican state senators who represent the region, Joe Pennacchio and Steve Oroho, and they warmly welcomed the Senate’s top Democrat. They want his help with state funding to fix the problem.

They’ve also fumed over what they consider to be the DEP’s overly strict standards in issuing and maintaining the no-swimming advisory. They say they want more transparency from Trenton bureaucrats, and input from the scientific community.

“Let’s listen to what they have to say,” Pennacchio said. “Let’s call up New York, let’s find out why they and Connecticut and other states who do it differently. We have the winter to figure this out. But what happened this year should never happen again.”

Both lawmakers voted against a law approved earlier this summer that allows municipalities to pay for storm water management by creating utilities that would charge fees on properties based on the amount of runoff they generate. The measure, approved along partisan lines in the Democrat-dominated Legislature, was derided by some Republicans as a “rain tax.”

Sweeney said he had talked with DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe on Thursday to see that Hopatcong State Park is hooked up to a nearby sewer system. A meeting is planned, he said.

Sweeney said McCabe was open to having a conversation about solving the problem at Lake Hopatcong and other waterways across the state.

“There’s a financial side and there’s a science side,” he said. “If we’re going to appropriate dollars, we have to find ways to fix the problems.”

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