Season’s Slump Due to Algal Growth Spurs Climate Change Discourse

Editor’s Note: The following is the full report and accompanying video of the shortened version with the same headline that appears in the October issue of The Jefferson Chronicle DIGEST magazine.

On any given summer weekend, the small locally-owned deli and cafe is filled with people wearing bathing suits and sunglasses and waiting in a crowded line to order breakfast. After they eat, they get ice and sandwiches to stock up their boats and get ready to spend a day on Lake Hopatcong. 

In May, Espanong Market had one of its best starts to the season, but when the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) sent out an advisory to the public to avoid contact with the lake due to a harmful algal bloom (HAB), business plummeted.

“People were worried. It was scary. People were afraid to use their boats or go in the water. They were afraid for their dogs to be next to the water,” the owner of Espanong Market, Brenda Robinson, said. “They made it sound as if the entire lake was green and as if it were just a Lake Hopatcong problem.”

On the walls surrounding her store, photos of bustling summers on Lake Hopatcong are framed reminders of the lake’s resort destination past. Since the advisory, Robinson has seen only one customer come in with plans to go out on the lake, which is typically the base of their lunch crowd. One of the parties Espanong Market caters each year ordered only half the food they normally buy.

“We weren’t sure how long it was going to last,” Robinson said. “We weren’t sure if there was a remedy to fix it. There were a lot of questions unanswered.”

Though Robinson found ways to keep the business going this summer by opening for dinners on Wednesday nights and expanding the breakfast menu, she isn’t sure how she will keep it going if the HAB comes back in the future. This fear is carried across the local business community where fishing businesses, restaurants, local delis, and marinas have slowed and lost customers since the advisory was put in place on June 27.

Video:

Click or tap play button to watch video.

Video by Kalen Luciano

The Bloom of the Problem

Despite its name, HAB, often referred to as blue-green algae, is actually cyanobacteria, not algae. Cyanobacteria exists naturally in most lakes, but the DEP reports that it bloomed this year after heavy rainfall created “nutrient-laden” stormwater that poured into the lake. These rainfalls were followed by periods of warm temperatures in the spring, which produced an ideal environment for the cyanobacteria to bloom. 

One of these nutrients, phosphorus, normally acts as a limiting nutrient for cyanobacteria, preventing it from blooming, but this year, it was found to be at higher levels in Lake Hopatcong than usual, according to Fred Lubnow, the director of aquatic programs at Princeton Hydro and consultant to the Lake Hopatcong Commission, the organization in charge of managing the lake. The warm temperatures and still water in the nutrient-rich lake created an environment for the cyanobacteria to thrive and exacerbated the bloom. These types of blooms look like spilled paint, pea soup, or as having a thick coating or mat on the surface, similar to the appearance of algae.

Exposure to these blooms can lead to health effects ranging from rashes, allergy-like reactions, flu-like symptoms, respiratory irritation, skin rashes, and eye irritation. With this risk, the DEP recommended local authorities close all public swimming beaches as a precaution rather than closing portions of the lake, because the bloom was so widespread. The advisory also warned the public to avoid recreational exposure to the lake, including swimming, wading, and water sport activities.

Backlash from the Advisory

After the DEP sent out the advisory, the lake was nearly empty. The water was still and only touched by the fish beneath its surface and the birds seeking to take them. Few ripples or tides were made by the once heavy traffic.

After hearing of the advisory, most of the public was hesitant to go in the water, and some feared going out on a boat and breathing in harmful toxins from the cyanobacteria, even though there was no warning against boating. As the advisory went on, some residents swam and made contact with the water without facing any negative health consequences.

Some experienced minor health issues such as rashes, but the more people who didn’t experience any of the potential health consequences, the more upset some residents were at the severity of the advisory, the way it was communicated, and how it resulted in a lake barren of boats and swimmers.

“You have people on both ends of the spectrum, some saying that it’s an overreaction and people should just be out swimming, and then other people saying you’re not reacting enough and we should close the entire lake,” Jessica Murphy, the president of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation (LHF), said. “The truth lies in between and I don’t know where.”

Jefferson Township Mayor Eric Wilsusen blamed part of the emptiness at Lake Hopatcong on the messaging from the DEP and the broadcast of that messaging by the media. While many interpreted the advisory to be a ban on the lake, according to Wilsusen, it was just a recommendation and people could go in the lake at their own risk. He also emphasized that boating was not deemed a risk by the DEP advisory.

Although some blamed poor messaging on the impact to the lake community, the HAB still met the DEP levels to be a risk — though this threshold has been met with criticism. The DEP’s guidelines, updated in June 2018, separate an HAB advisory into two different metrics: cyanobacteria and its byproduct, cyanotoxin, levels.

Cyanobacteria is responsible for the dermatology effects such as rashes, while cyanotoxin is responsible for the internal health effects. The levels set by the DEP are for the most vulnerable groups — young children, elderly people, and those with an immune disorder.

Both the thresholds for cyanobacteria and cyanotoxin to cause an advisory are more conservative in New Jersey than most other states or health organizations. The World Health Organization sets the threshold for cyanobacteria at five times the level as the DEP, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency sets the threshold for cyanotoxin at more than two times the level as the DEP.

In Lake Hopatcong, only the cyanobacteria levels had been met.

The Cause Behind the Closure

Regardless of the dispute, the HAB was more prevalent this summer than ever before. These blooms occurred on Lake Hopatcong in the past, according to Lubnow, but it was usually after swimming season and confined to a cove rather than early on in the summer and throughout the entire lake. 

This year, there was more phosphorus, but the source of this higher concentration isn’t clear. Some argue that the problem comes from overfilled septics and the nutrients in the septic that get carried away by stormwater. Others blame poor stormwater management for carrying nutrients in the lake before they are filtered out. A few believe that the main contributor of the HAB was the pollution from Weldon Quarry, where one of the facility’s pipes leaked silt into the northern part of the lake earlier in the year.

But the HAB isn’t isolated to Lake Hopatcong. It has occurred throughout lakes in the state and across the country — the commonality: warmer temperatures and heavier rainfall. With these conditions, HAB is more likely to occur by receiving the nutrients it needs from runoff and warmth it needs from rising temperatures.

“I would be very surprised if we don’t see this again,” Bill Kibler of Raritan Headwaters Association said.

Leading state climatologist David Robinson attributed these ideal conditions for HAB to climate change. As more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, more heat is trapped in the Earth, leading to rising temperatures and warmer water. The warmer atmosphere also holds more moisture, which causes it to contain more water before precipitation occurs, resulting in more intense rainfall.

An Uncoordinated Response

In the hot and humid cafeteria at Hopatcong High School, hundreds of residents and elected officials gathered in standing room only to learn about and discuss the HAB at the Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting. During the meeting, the frustrated audience listened to numerous proposed solutions but saw little action. 

The DEP monitored the lake twice a week and performed an aerial view once a week to determine the levels of cyanobacteria and cyanotoxin. Other than monitoring, people grew impatient at being told that there was not much to do but wait.

Some resisted this philosophy. They argued that the HAB could be reduced through aeration, a technique where the water is moved around, or by adding chemicals or natural organisms.

The presentation made by Lubnow and the recommendations by LHF, however, focused on prevention. Lubnow’s recommendations included completing the Watershed Implementation Plan, conducting near-shore demonstration projects, and establishing beach and cove restoration plans. All of these plans would reduce the amount of nutrients entering the lake.

LHF recommended individuals to reduce their nutrient footprint by avoiding the use of fertilizers, cleaning out their septics, and cleaning up their pet waste. It recommended that towns improve stormwater management and look into sewers.

Public officials and members of the commission demanded more money from the state for the underfunded organization to help it better maintain the lake, including Assemblywoman BettyLou Decroce’s proposed legislation to provide the commission with $4 million annually — eight times the level of funding it receives now.

Still, most residents left disappointed by the lack of action being taken, the commission frustrated with its lack of funding, and seemingly no solution in sight.

A Struggle Bigger Than a Lake

Christine Clarke is an environmental advocate from Jefferson running for the General Assembly on a platform of bringing the renewable energy market to New Jersey. In her role as an environmental advocate, she sees the issue she’s fighting against everywhere.

“We’re seeing the impacts of climate change all around us,” Clarke said. She described the wildfires in California, droughts and food shortages, and the displacement of people far from Jefferson, but she sees it locally as well. She sees it in flooding in her backyard, heat waves and heavy rainfall in the community, and the HAB not just in Lake Hopatcong but across the country.

“Climate change isn’t just a someday issue. It’s not something that we kick the can down the road and look at in 2030 or we put it upon the state,” Clarke said. “It’s something that’s impacting the local community.”

Without taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, New Jersey alone will lose $1.6 billion a year by 2030 in extreme weather damage, according to Clarke.

The HAB reveals a glimpse into what a community in a climate crisis looks like. In Jefferson, flooding has increased with more intense rainfalls, rising temperatures have produced milder winters and hotter summers, and roads have deteriorated at faster rates due to exposure from a changing climate.

As climate change continues to affect the community, more businesses could suffer like those in Lake Hopatcong, residents could face uncertainty and helplessness, and the government could continue to have issues too big to handle and limited funds to solve the problem.

For most of the year, rain means it’s time for John Burns, the director of parks and recreation facilities, to take care of the fields with his staff. They dig a hole in the center of the flooded field, place the pump in the hole, and turn it on. They create trenches in the field for the water to trickle toward the pump. When the water is mostly pumped out, they rake around to distribute air to the field and dry it up. The process takes over an hour to do per field.

“It’s really really muddy out there,” Burns said. “You can have a pottery class out there.”

Over the past two years, the rainfall has become more intense and made his job harder to clean up the flooding. Three years ago, he saw only a few cancellations on the fields, but since then, there’s a few cancellations every week.

Many residents experience this same flooding in their own backyards because Jefferson has wetland areas prone to flooding. With the increase in rainfall intensity, the problem has only grown worse and will continue to grow worse, according to Robinson.

“We’ve tried to do our best over the years to address them, but you always wind up with certain areas prone to flooding,” Wilsusen said. “It gets to be a challenge in some of the areas to come up with plans to be able to divert some of that water so that it doesn’t necessarily cause widespread flooding.”

While flooding only affects wetland areas and recreational fields, other local effects of climate change are more widespread.

On Sunday mornings in late July, vendors would normally line the park off of Route 15 in Lake Hopatcong and residents would explore their homemade goods and exchange greetings. Instead, the weekly farmers market was cancelled, and heat wave centers were opened.

Over more than one weekend in July, excessive heat watches and heat advisories were issued for most of New Jersey as temperatures ranged from the mid 90s to over 100 degrees.

The state has warmed by close to two degrees Celsius since 1895, making it one of the fastest-warming states in the nation. Though a small change, this has a significant impact.

“When you total and average things over months and then subsequently years and see these changes of several degrees, it’s pretty notable,” Robinson said. He compared it to changing a thermostat in the house by a few degrees. Instantaneously, Robinson said, people won’t feel that change, but over a long period of time, people will start to feel that.

Average temperatures might only change by two degrees, but this means that hot days are getting hotter, leading to these heat waves. Twelve of the 16 warmest summers since 1895 occurred in this century.

In the winter, rising temperatures leave New Jersey vulnerable to changes in its normal weather conditions. When the average temperature rises, there are more days when the temperature goes above the freezing mark, altering snow patterns, freezings over lakes, and wildlife life cycles. The effects this has on humans include shorter ice fishing seasons, longer seasons for diseases and ticks, and heavier snowfall events.

One of the more subtle effects of climate change can be seen on the roads in Jefferson.

“Our infrastructure is obviously out there 24/7 and vulnerable to anything, weather included,” Robinson said.

The wear and tear of roadways in Jefferson can be attributed to a number of factors, according to Robinson. The more intense and heavy rainfall can be pounding on the pavement. Potholes and cracks can grow with a freeze and thaw cycle that occurs more often as temperatures fluctuate above and below the freezing point. Excessive heat can impact the material in the roads and worsen the quality of them.

“The weather has always impacted the infrastructure out there, but with a little bit more in terms of extremes, it may be impacting it more,” Robinson said.

With the responsibility of paving local roads, the municipality struggles to keep up with the flood of paving requests. It has a road rating system in place, but the expenses are overwhelming.

“We know the condition of the roads,” Wilsusen said.  “The problem is that there really wasn’t a long-term strategic plan to actually pave and maintain them.”

Wilsusen is working on a plan to repair the deteriorating roads, but it will take years for some to get repaired. In the meantime, there’s an alternative to asphalt called micropaving that temporarily patches up cracks and potholes until the road can be fully repaired.

Adapt and Mitigate

The negative impacts of climate change have unfolded over years. Hurricane Sandy, which tore trees down and devastated communities like Jefferson, was considered a once-in-500-year storm at the time and now is considered a once-in-25-year storm. The HAB shut down lakes across New Jersey, like Lake Hopatcong. Infrastructure is deteriorating. 

“There’s a lot of good reasons why this requires some attention, but the interesting thing is that there’s always some pressing issue out there besides climate or climate change,” Robinson said. Though climate issues like heat waves or droughts heighten the public’s environmental awareness momentarily, politicians tend to keep climate change to the back burner of their agendas since the effects are long-term and gradually unfolding.

The classic graph of the observed global temperature trends show three projected scenarios for the future, according to Ellen Mecray, the regional climate services director for the Eastern Region for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There’s the high scenario that the world is currently trending on, a lower emissions pathway where the world adjusts to the global temperatures it is currently at and adapts to the changes already taking place, and the lowest emissions pathway that mitigates the effects of climate change by reducing greenhouse gases.

“We’re going to have to learn to address these issues,” Robinson said. “We’re not going to get away with it now.”

“A Very Human Problem”

The struggle for businesses to survive and residents to enjoy the lake community during the HAB advisory has driven many to focus their attention on the issue. Hundreds attended the Lake Hopatcong Commission meetings over the summer and suggested possible solutions to the climate-driven problem.

“Even though we have this fear that it’ll continue to come back, I think that has generated an urgency in people and really brought out constructive and creative ideas to confront this and look at what we can do to stop it,” Murphy said.

With the broader context of climate change, Clarke hopes to see this same collaboration and creative solutions at the state level. As a climate activist, she wants to see the state legislature allocate more resources to local communities and see it take measures to cut emissions and move to a renewable energy market.

“I have a relatively positive vibe right now that things are on the upswing in terms of the understanding and people being more interested in acting in a mitigative stance and frankly coming to reality that we’re going to have to adapt in some senses, too,” Robinson said.

Clarke occasionally finds herself discouraged by the continued reports of the climate crisis that the world is facing and will continue to face if it doesn’t act on solutions swiftly, but she finds hope in communities like Jefferson rallying together to fight climate change and the impacts it has.

“Ultimately, it all comes down to being a very human problem,” Clarke said. “This affects us and our families and our businesses. As long as we can regard this as a human problem and include each other at the table in finding solutions, I do think we will find the right way forward.”

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