The Lake Hopatcong Commission’s Monday, July 8, meeting brought more than 250 residents of the lake area into a steaming Hopatcong High School cafeteria to demand answers to a blue-green algae bloom, also called harmful algae bloom (HAB) that has closed the lake for swimming since late June.
While experts from the state and the Lake Hopatcong Commission explained how the bloom occurred and assured residents monitoring is continuing, no one could assure residents and business owners when the swimming beaches would be allowed to open.
Before asking for public comment, Commission Chairman Ron Smith called on a number of experts, including representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to provide information on the bloom.
State DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe assured the residents present that the state will continue aerial monitoring and sampling from various locations around the lake and will post findings on its website within 24 hours. She said she can’t predict the future of the bloom. “With more rain, it can go either way,” she said.
The commission’s environmental consultant, Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro, said there are eight monitoring sites and his firm is also sampling for the algae.
Leslie McGeorge, administrator of Water Monitoring and Standards for the DEP, explained the swimming ban would stay in place until concentrations of the blue-green algae drop.
Bruce Friedman, director of the DEP’s Division of Water Monitoring and Standards, said aerial surveys of the lake must be supplemented with water sampling and testing. The state can’t just rely on the lake appearing clearer.
McGeorge noted calling the bloom algae is not really correct. The invaders are bacteria that can produce cyanotoxins which can produce harmful effects above certain levels. The most common problems are rashes, but heavy concentrations can result in kidney, liver, and nervous system damage.
“Many complex eco-systems are out of balance,” she said, because of a number of nutrient-enriching substances entering the lake, whether from septic systems, stormwater or agriculture. High temperatures and calm water add to the likelihood the bacteria will form, she added.
The problem isn’t new, Lubnow pointed out. He said in previous years an algal bloom struck the lake later in the season when people were no longer swimming, so it wasn’t of as much concern.
Although Lubnow said he wouldn’t delve too deeply into climate change, he said the fact that hot weather is lasting longer is a problem and could be causing the bloom to appear earlier in the season.
“It’s going to be warmer and wetter, that’s just a fact,” Lubnow said. “We are seeing milder and milder winters and more extreme heat, along with fewer frost days and increased frequency of extreme weather events. That fuels bacteria.”
The bacteria feed on elevated phosphorus, Lubnow said. Rain events in June washed phosphorus into the lake and a mini-heat wave caused the bloom to persist, he explained.
“We hope to never see this again,” Friedman said, “but I’m afraid this is a new paradigm for the lake. We are going to try to ramp up our response,” he added.
Lake Hopatcong is far from the only body of water with this problem, Lubnow added. Lakes around the state as well as in New York and Pennsylvania are seeing the same bloom.
Lubnow pointed out the commission has been working on problems caused by phosphorous for some time. Using a grant from the Highlands Council in 2006, the commission studied the problem of non-point source pollution (pollution not entering the lake from a specific pipe) and used two grants from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to create a watershed improvement program (WIP) and is continuing that work with its third Highlands Council grant.
The commission counted and studied stormwater catch basins around the lake. Lubnow noted the importance of not just concentrating on basins close to the lake because all stormwater flows toward the lake.
“We have mapped each catch basin,” Commission Vice Chairman Dan McCarthy emphasized. “The towns have all the data.”
“We got about a 33% reduction in phosphorous,” Lubnow said of the catch basin program.
He urged all residents to participate in efforts to keep phosphorous out of the lake.
Jefferson Township Mayor Eric Wilsusen noted Jefferson doesn’t allow people to use fertilizers containing phosphorous, which helps with runoff from properties into the lake.
Lubnow added Jefferson also secured a DEP grant for septic system management, which resulted in an ordinance requiring residents to pump out their systems and set up a program to monitor pump outs.
He also noted the Jefferson Daycare Center, located in the former Nolan’s Point two-room schoolhouse, has an alternative septic system that is more efficient than most.
Much of the other three municipalities around the lake are sewered, although Hopatcong Mayor Mike Francis pointed out “rock stopped us,” from sewering the entire borough.
Starve the algae
“Starve the algae,” was the mantra proposed by Julia Somers, executive director of the Highlands Coalition, but she also said, “there are no simple solutions,” which was echoed by the experts present.
Somers assured the commission and residents the coalition will help in any way it can. She noted it is possible the creation of a regional stormwater utility could be a solution, but the coalition is not advocating that at this time.
Many residents object to the idea of another layer of government regulations and called the stormwater utility idea a “rain tax.”
Somers suggested mapping all impervious areas around the lake.
Robert Tessier, the state Department of Community Affairs representative to the commission and chair of the commission’s land use committee, said he noted a large number of variances granted by the municipal planning boards. He questioned if straying from the letter of planning law might contribute to pollution in the lake.
Francis said Hopatcong, which has seen a number of variance requests, only grants variances when they will improve the lake and does not grant variances on new construction. He also noted there is almost no new construction.
“The lake is telling us we must do more,” former Hopatcong mayor and lifelong resident of the borough Cliff Lundin said.
“Everything that happened was mentioned 40 years ago,” he added. A member of the commission’s forerunner, the Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board for its duration, Lundin could recite chapter and verse the remedies proposed over the years: sewers, better storm water drainage, dredging, and more.
“Everybody wants you to do something,” Lundin told the commission, “but says don’t cost me any money. We need an influx of money.”
When the commission was formed in 2000, the state provided $1.5 million in funding. After the state funding was dropped several times, it was brought back to $500,000.
Several speakers had concrete suggestions.
Greg Gorman of the Sierra Club suggested re-establishing stream buffers and not allowing overdevelopment and sprawl in sensitive areas.
Marina owner Cliff Beebe reiterated his statement that the lake should be kept at the high water mark.
Sarah Schindler of Hopatcong pointed out much of the tax money collected around the lake goes elsewhere in the state and should be redirected back to lake issues. That statement got a round of applause.