As our lakes reopen, NJ must do more to protect them

25 May 2020 | 09:01

    On May 21, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced a new color-coded public health alert index to provide the public with guidance on recreational activities in water bodies impacted by harmful algal blooms (HABs). The new index will make it clearer to the public when boating and related activities are permissible depending on the levels of HABs.

    Instead of NJ DEP taking action on harmful algal blooms in our lakes, they came out with a warning system. Their "plan" is to tell us when we can and can’t use the water instead of trying to clean up our lakes so we can enjoy them. We already know what 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.

    DEP’s color-coded warning system does nothing to clean up our lakes or find funding. It will only show us how polluted the lakes are. This is like putting out a color-coded iceberg warning system after the Titanic already got hit.

    The alert index is part of Governor Murphy’s response initiative following at least 40 harmful algal blooms across New Jersey last year. The initiative includes $13 million in state funding for local projects to mitigate harmful algal blooms as well as development of tools to enhance monitoring and communications of health information to the public.

    If DEP was serious about cleaning up our lakes, instead of coming out with color coding, they would actually move forward with a real cleanup plan and a sustainable source of funding. The $13 million grant that DEP released this year was a drop in the bucket. What’s worse is that it was a matching grant, so a lot of towns couldn’t afford to get the money out of the bucket. We need a holistic approach to protecting our lakes. This should include watershed planning, restoring stream buffers, and enforcing real Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) standards that limit pollutants in our lakes. We need tougher rules on stormwater management and to bring back Septic Management Districts. We also need to reduce overdevelopment and sprawl in environmentally sensitive areas.

    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.

    This warning system is telling us what we already know, that our lakes have a serious problem and DEP isn’t dealing with it. There are short-term,environmentally sound ways to treat water and reduce algae blooms. We need more funding to restore wetlands and natural systems, and to retrofit stormwater systems in existing developments. We also need tougher stormwater management to limit the use of lawn fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus. We also need to fix aging infrastructure and reduce nutrients from failed septics, leaky sewers and combined sewer overflows.

    The DEP also needs to reverse Christie’s rollbacks, restore the state’s lake management program, update C1 streams,and deal with phosphorus.

    A report from the Environmental Working Group last year showed levels of cyanotoxins in lakes, rivers, and other water bodies across the country at levels higher than EPA health guidelines. New Jersey needs to be doing more when it comes to preventing toxic algae blooms in the future.

    DEP needs to take action now, not waste time creating color-coded warning systems. Otherwise, the algae blooms will get worse and we could end up seeing dead zones, fish kills, and even ecological collapse in parts of these lakes. We saw over 50 water bodies closed or under advisory last summer because of harmful algal blooms. This year could be worse because we had such a warm winter and the lakes still have algae in them.

    There needs to be more funding and grant opportunities for towns and impacted communities. We need to protect the lakes and rivers we swim in, but more importantly the reservoirs that we drink from. Creating a color-coded warning system will do nothing to clean up our lakes. DEP needs to take strong action to protect our lakes and their watersheds, otherwise our lakes could end up dying.

    Jeff Tittel, Director

    New Jersey Sierra Club