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Lake Hopatcong Closure Seen as Wake-Up Call for State’s Watersheds

The shutdown of New Jersey’s largest recreational lake because of harmful algae blooms is not an isolated case; conservationists warn that something must change

Credit: NJDEP
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For some conservationists, the closure of the state’s largest and most important recreational lake due to harmful algae blooms is a wake-up call to both the public and policymakers to step up protections of New Jersey’s watersheds.

After a massive bloom of blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, the state Department of Environmental Protection closed Lake Hopatcong on June 27, shutting down its beaches and warning against any contact with the water.

It is not the only instance of what the agency calls Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB), a sudden bloom of blue-green algae, a normal part of a healthy aquatic environment, that can suddenly explode into a widespread bloom. With the right conditions, heavy rainfall washing nutrients into the water body and high temperatures can cause a bloom within a few days.

“It is going to be the new normal,’’ predicted Cindy Ehrenclou, executive director of the Raritan Headwaters Association. “This is absolutely the beginning of a big, big problem for New Jersey.’’

Lake Hopatcong is not an isolated case. The state also shut down swimming areas at Spruce Run Reservoir, the state’s third largest water supply reservoir. Swartswood Lake State Park recently reopened after a HAB, and Lake Mohawk in Sparta is under an ongoing advisory because of the problem. The same problems have occurred in New York and Pennsylvania.

A sign of what’s in store?

“It’s a sign of more things to come,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, noting that with climate change, some of the ingredients contributing to the occurrence of these blooms are heavier and more intense rainfalls along with warmer and prolonged heat waves (which tend to prolong the blooms).

Plus, more fertilizers and nutrients washing into streams and rivers. “Every day, homeowners can be making better choices of what they are putting on their land,’’ Ehrenclou said.

Lake Hopatcong
Credit: NJDEP
Lake Hopatcong

“The problem is we’re not changing our behavior. People need to understand that everything we do on the land affects water quality. Manmade chemicals and nutrients that we put on the landscape are being carried through stormwater into our rivers and lakes, and harmful algae blooms are on the rise.’’

Algae blooms are a direct function of stormwater runoff, said Bill Kibler, RHA’s policy director. “If you fertilize your lawn and it rains that day, it’s all going to end up in a stream. This is a very serious issue. As long as it keeps raining, these algae blooms will keep happening unless we do something about them.’’

Closed for the summer?

To Tittel, the growing problem with blue-green algae is a sign of failure of the state’s watershed management program, especially dealing with stormwater and nutrients runoff. The phosphorus level in the lake is the highest in 17 years of gathering the data, he said.

Typically, the cyanobacteria cannot maintain the abnormally high bloom population for long and will rapidly die and disappear after one or two weeks. However, if conditions remain favorable, another bloom can quickly replace the previous one, according to the Rutgers University Agricultural Experiment Station.

“I’m being told Lake Hopatcong may be closed for the summer,’’ Ehrenclou said. “Can you imagine? Recreational use closed for the summer.”

The association argued the problem lends credence to the idea of creating stormwater utilities to address runoff problems, a concept advanced under a bill signed by Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this year.

The legislation, debated in one form or another for almost a decade, would allow municipalities or a group of towns to form an authority with the ability to assess fees to commercial and residential developments that increase runoff. The fees would be used to pay for so-called green infrastructure projects, like rain gardens and green roofs, to reduce runoff.

The DEP did not respond to questions in email or phone messages on Wednesday and Friday.

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