New Jersey currently has nine lakes with high levels of harmful algal blooms that are either closed or under advisory. Seven lakes, including Spruce Run Reservoir, are at an orange ‘advisory’ alert level, which means that public beaches are closed according to DEP’s new mapping tool and new color- coded warning system. Three lakes, including Greenwood Lake, are at a blue ‘watch’ alert level. Earlier this year, DEP released a new warning system that actually weakened standards. Beaches used to be closed at 40k cells/mL, and now they aren’t closed until cell counts exceed 80k cells/mL.
“As we’re heading into the July 4th weekend, we are seeing high levels of algae already impacting our lakes. Nine lakes show high levels and all of them would have been closed last year. Spruce Run Reservoir, which is not only an important recreation area but part of our biggest drinking water supply system, has beaches that are closed. Greenwood Lake is at a blue ‘watch’ level even though based on last year’s standard it would have been closed. They say to use caution and not to bring pets swimming, but then people shouldn’t be allowed to swim either,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “These lakes at ‘watch’ level aren’t clean, they just changed the warning system to allow them to stay open even though it isn’t safe.”
The seven lakes at ‘advisory’ level, which means that public beaches are closed and confirmed cell counts exceed 80k cells/mL, include Spruce Run in Hunterdon County, Brook Park Lake in Essex County, Sunset Lake in Monmouth County, Rosedale Lake in Mercer County, Amico Island Pond in Burlington County, Dramasei Park Lake in Camden County, Mountain Lake in Warren County. Greenwood Lake in Passaic County is currently at a ‘watch’ level, which means that public bathing beaches are open even though cell counts are between 20k and 80k cells/mL. Rosedale Lake in Mercer County is also at a ‘watch’ level.
“We already have nine cases of HABs in eight counties even though July just started. Greenwood Lake and one other lake is at a ‘watch’ level, which pretty much means swim at your own risk. You can’t bring dogs into the lake because they could be impacted by the high levels of HABs. More importantly, you’re watching it get worse because the state has not implemented any plan or funding to clean up the lakes. Greenwood Lake and Spruce Run were closed for most of the season last year, which may happen again this year,” said Tittel. “Seven lake beaches are closed at ‘advisory’, including a couple of beaches at Spruce Run, but they still allow people to go out in boats despite the fact that people swim off their boats all the time. The map doesn’t show HABs levels for green levels, so even though lakes like Lake Hopatcong are still open we don’t know how close they are to being closed.”
DEP’s new warning index that they released earlier this year has six ‘HAB Alert Levels’ depending on the levels of algae. ‘None’ has no reported HAB present, ‘Watch’ is for levels between 20k - 40k cells/mL, ‘Alert’ is between 40k - 80k cells/mL, ‘Advisory’ is for levels above 80k cells/mL. The ‘Warning’ and ‘Danger’ categories are HABs that are producing high levels of toxins. Public beaches are open for ‘None’, ‘Watch’, and ‘Alert’.
“Instead of strengthening standards for harmful algal blooms and cleaning up our lakes, the DEP weakened the standards. They used their new warning system as a way to actually roll back the standards without telling the public. They used to have a protective standard, but now they aren’t closing beaches until ‘advisory’ when levels are 4 times the health-based standard. Now, you can ‘watch’ the algae get worse as you swim and you may end up getting sick from it,” said Jeff Tittel. “This is a game they’re playing, using colors instead of actually cleaning up our lakes. We already know when the color system is - it’s blue-green algae and people should be turning red because of DEP’s failure to take action over the past year.”
Freshwater HABs are formed from bacteria carried in by nutrients primarily from septics and lawn and garden fertilizer. The algae can cause severe skin rashes. If swallowed the polluted water can cause abdominal pain, headaches and vomiting. Pets should also be kept away from water where the algae blooms are present.
“DEP needs to take action now. Instead, they are hiding behind a color-coded warning system and weakening standards. Without real action, we could see dead zones, fish kills, and even ecological collapse in parts of these lakes. We need a holistic and integrated approach by communities, towns and the state. There are long- and short-term, environmentally sound ways to treat water and reduce algae blooms,” said Jeff Tittel. “We need more funding to restore wetlands and natural systems, and to retrofit stormwater systems in existing developments. We need tougher stormwater management to limit phosphorus coming from animals and septic and the use of lawn fertilizers containing nitrogen. We also need to fix aging infrastructure and reduce nutrients from failed septics, leaky sewers and combined sewer overflows.”
In order to effectively deal with harmful algal blooms, NJ DEP needs to establish stream buffers and enforce real Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) standards. They need to strengthen rules on stormwater management and bring back Septic Management Districts. They also need to restore the state’s Lake Management Program. Out of the money set aside for dealing with HABs, the state is raiding $2 million to address the current budget shortage.
“New Jersey has still failed to move forward on any major initiatives to clean up our lakes, whether it is TMDLs, stormwater management, or restoration funding. Last year, over 50 of our lakes and reservoirs were closed or under advisory for harmful algal blooms. This year we already have six lakes closed and we have the whole summer ahead of us. The state needs to take action now on dealing with septic and stormwater management and strengthening standards that limit fertilizer, pollution, and more. We also need more funding to restore wetlands and natural systems, and to retrofit stormwater systems in existing developments. Climate impacts will only get worse and we need to protect the lakes and rivers we swim in, but more importantly the reservoirs that we drink from,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “DEP needs to take strong action to protect our lakes and their watersheds, otherwise our lakes could end up dying.”