Algae Bloom Fouls N.J.’s Largest Lake, Indicating Broader Crisis



Aug. 5, 2019

Lake Hopatcong, normally buzzing with swimmers and water skiers, is filled with blooms of cyanobacteria, fueled by heavy rains and hot, sunny days.


LAKE HOPATCONG, New Jersey — Around Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey’s largest lake, workers have been laid off, sailing lessons canceled and summers ruined. The reason: clouds of blue-green algae in the water, blooming in quantities never before recorded.

State warnings that the water is unsafe — which began in June and remain in effect for all but one small branch of the lake — have come during a summer of unusually intense algae blooms in many parts of the country. Fueled by heavy rains and hot, sunny days, the blooms have caused high-season swimming bans from lakes in the Pacific Northwest to the entire Mississippi seacoast.

Climate change is a likely factor, scientists say, in an increase in blooms of cyanobacteria — single-cell organisms that, when they grow densely, can produce toxic substances.

More frequent, more intense rainstorms that drive nutrients like sewage and fertilizer into waterways — coupled with more hot days to warm the water — create ideal conditions for the blooms, which in recent years have appeared in more places, earlier in the summer.

The biggest challenge is in places with older sewer and stormwater systems that have been overwhelmed by fast-moving storms, as has happened repeatedly this summer in New Jersey and New York. The Environmental Protection Agency has put the cost of upgrading New Jersey’s stormwater system at $16 billion.

“With climate change, we’ve got more precipitation, we’ve got sea-level rise and all this aging infrastructure,” said Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at New Jersey Future, a group pushing for better-planned development.

But as with climate change, the blooms have aroused political passions across the country — most recently in this conservative, Republican-leaning section of New Jersey — over how dangerous they are and how to handle and prevent them. There have been crowded meetings, dueling allegations of government meddling and environmental neglect and even conspiracy theories.

All of it is unfolding as Lake Hopatcong businesses watch income slip away. The lake, normally buzzing with swimmers and water skiers, is so empty of humans that a black bear recently took a swim across it.

Lake Hopatcong is a many-tentacled, four-square-mile man-made body that a century ago developed as a resort. Several restaurants along it can be approached by boat, and many houses have docks and boathouses on stilts.

Locals along the shore note with frustration that some states, like Vermont and Connecticut, have less stringent standards for what constitutes an unhealthy level of cyanobacteria, which pose health threats ranging in severity from rashes to neurological problems.

“They don’t seem as panicked about it as New Jersey,” said Laurie Murphy, 59, who runs Dow’s Boat Rental.

And some Republican politicians have even accused state agenciesof ginning up the threat as a scare tactic to promote what they call a “rain tax.”

Environment and planning advocates say that is an incorrect description of a potential solution: stormwater utilities. The utilities exist in 1,716 localities in 40 states and will be an option for New Jersey municipalities starting next month under a law signed by the Democratic governor, Philip D. Murphy.

The utilities are a mechanism for localities to charge fees to property owners based on how much stormwater runoff they generate. Runoff not only increases flooding, it sluices sewage, fertilizers and other pollutants into lakes and oceans, nourishing bacteria.

Fees would be higher for properties that have more impervious surfaces, like asphalt; commercial properties would likely pay the most.

The income would have to go to reduce and safely manage runoff, with better drainage, protective plantings like rain gardens and green roofs, and maintenance.

But Hopatcong-area Republican politicians are having none of it. Some are urging their towns to pass resolutions vowing not to establish the voluntary utilities, and at least one, Sparta, part of the lake’s watershed, has done so.

“This is a new tax, no matter how you cut it,” Assemblyman Hal Wirths of Sussex County, which shares the lake with Morris County, said at a recent hearing.

“The politicians are not helping,” said Elliott Ruga, deputy director of the New Jersey Highlands Coalition, a group of local environmental organizations that supports the utilities.

“It’s really a problem that because of ideology, we may not find a solution,” Mr. Ruga added.

Fred Lubnow, a private-sector water consultant who has worked in the community for decades, is careful not to stress climate change in public meetings and avoids discussing stormwater utilities: His job, he stresses, is to describe the “menu” of needed improvements, not how to pay for them.

This debate has played out around the country. “Rain tax” arguments often defeat stormwater utilities, even in flood-prone areas, according to a study by Western Kentucky Universityresearchers, who recommended lengthy public education campaigns before proposing a utility. But last year, a measure passed in Los Angeles County, with the required two-thirds of the popular vote — even though it was unabashedly called a “stormwater tax.”

The problem at Lake Hopatcong resembles — to a point — climate change in miniature: A nation cannot save itself from climate change by reducing carbon emissions if other countries do not.

Pollution streams into the lake from diffuse sources. So if a few lakeside homeowners or a single town spend money and time taking measures, they could still face lake closures unless everyone in the watershed does the same.

But environmental advocates insist the parallel goes only so far.

“It’s a solvable problem,” said Ms. Sturm of New Jersey Future. “It’s just four towns in two counties that can work together.”

Two of the municipalities, Mount Arlington and Roxbury Township, have sewers. Another, Hopatcong, started a sewer project but was unable to complete the more expensive work of sewering rocky areas. The fourth, Jefferson Township, has only septic tanks, but requires them to be pumped out every three years.

There is a state-funded Lake Hopatcong Commission, but its budget dwindled to zero under Chris Christie’s administration; the commission was revived by Mr. Christie with a $500,000 budget that some legislators seek to increase.

Jessica Murphy, president of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation, lives in Maplewood, N.J., but summers on the lake, where she grew up sailing and sometimes sleeping in her family’s boathouse.

“You could put your ear to the floor and hear the water,” Ms. Murphy recalled.

When she realized the algae bloom was stretching deep into the summer, she said, “My heart just bottomed out of my stomach.” She had planned to teach her 6-year-old daughter to water-ski (“You only get one summer to be 6”). The phones at the foundation’s office were lighting up with calls from stressed business owners and residents asking what to do.

“If there is an upside, it’s that it’s forced all of us to look at our own contributing factors to this,” Ms. Murphy said. “Do I need to get my septic tank checked and buy some lake-friendly fertilizers? Conversations are happening that hadn’t been prioritized before.”

At a public beach on the lake, a busload of people from Paterson, N.J., some dressed in their bathing suits, had arrived unaware of the swimming ban. They were playing musical chairs instead.

At the nearby Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club, Olivia Eagles, 17, and Sean Crandal, 22, puttered past in a motorboat. Their sailing students had been sent home, the boats lined up on the dock. (Motorboating and large-boat sailing is allowed, but small sailing dinghies bring too much contact with the water.)

“You can’t have kids come here and stare at the water they’re not allowed to touch,” Mr. Crandal said.

Across the lake, a few patrons sat in hot sun on the dock outside a popular pub, the Windlass, but a manager asked reporters not to talk to them. Business was slow at a mini-golf course and nonexistent at a company renting paddleboards, which had laid off eight employees, including Alex Rivera, 19.

“I connect everything to climate change,” said Brooke Leitzel, 18, a clerk at the mini-golf course.

“I just know that I lost my job,” said Ms. Rivera.

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