To keep NJ lakes open, DEP devises rating system for harmful algal blooms

Bridge Marina owner Ray Fernandez is one of dozens of businesses owners that saw a drastic decline in foot traffic when Lake Hopatcong was closed last summer due to a toxic algal bloom.

“It really devastated us for that weekend as well for a subsequent three or four weeks,” he said.

Already taking an economic hit from COVID-19, the harmful algal bloom might be the other microscopic enemy looming and poised to do physical and economic harm on lake communities.

“We believe that there will be a continued occurrence of harmful algal blooms in our water bodies in New Jersey. And in fact. we had harmful algal blooms present in certain water bodies that never went away from last summer,” said Shawn LaTourette from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Now that Gov. Phil Murphy has given the green light for parks, beaches and lakes to reopen, the Department of Environmental Protection wants to get ahead of the algal bloom spread, offering a new rating system to detect its harmful effects.

“So at that first level and that middle level you can take a swim if that’s your choice, you can boat. Be aware though that there could be a risk,” LaTourette said.

Dr. Steve Souza, who assisted the DEP with the new rating system, says it’s important for the public to pay attention to signage around the lakes.

“Essentially they will have a warning level, a caution level, and then a danger level and those will be associated with those different cell concentrations. The important there is that you can have these elevated cell counts without elevated concentrations of the toxins,” he said.

Sen. Anthony Bucco, who pushed for the new rating system, says it’s a win-win for both business owners and tourists.

“I’m happy now and I’m encouraged with this new color coded system that it will provide the necessary information for people to make an informed decision and keep the lake open. In fact, if this system was in place last year the lake would have never been closed,” Bucco said.

The director of the NJ Sierra Club, Jeff Tittel, staunchly disagrees and is accusing the DEP of catering to political pressure and certain businesses instead of taking responsibility. He says the index, which was part of a $13 million initiative in state funding to mitigate harmful algal blooms, will not fix the problem.

“Well that towns have to put up a certain amount of their own money to get the state money. At one point it was about 20%. A lot of towns are broke. They don’t have the money for the match. $13 million won’t even fix one lake,” Tittel said.

He says his biggest concern is the potential health risks to residents.

“My concern is that people are going to ignore the signs because they’re going to see a yellow sign saying you can swim at your own risk and say ‘I’m hot, I’m going to go in there,’ Tittel said. “But at that level, if people are swimming they can get ear infections, if they swallow the water they can get a stomach bug.”

So in addition to social distancing, visitor and residents will now have to decide how much risk they’re willing to take to enjoy the lake this summer.

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