Lake Hopatcong battles algae and aquatic weeds

LAKE HOPATCONG, NJ – Hopes for a better summer on Lake Hopatcong were tentative at best when weed harvesting started in the always problematic Crescent Cove on the morning of Wednesday, June 24.

Harvesting was starting more than a month late because the pandemic closed state offices, including the Motor Vehicle Agency, meaning boat licensing revenues weren’t coming in to fund the work. Finally, the state, Morris and Sussex counties and the four municipalities that surround the lake figured out a way to get harvesting going.

Then tragedy struck.

Curtis Mulch, one of two full-time harvester operators, was making a second swing into the cove after dumping a load of weeds when the harvester capsized in about 12 feet of water.

Hopatcong Firefighter Alex Rodriguez said the emergency call came in at 10:28. Five borough police officers were on the scene and in the water in a few minutes, but it was too late.

State police divers couldn’t recover Mulch’s body until 2:20 p.m. The upturned harvester was pulled out of the water on Friday, July 3, after several unsuccessful attempts and four hours of work by teams from the NJ Forest Fire Service and the NJ Department of Environmental Protection. The cause of the accident is under investigation.

While the weeds are a problem, the Lake Hopatcong Commission is also attacking phosphorus in the lake in an attempt to avoid another Harmful Algal Bloom that closed the lake for most of the summer of 2019.

Lake Hopatcong was not the only freshwater body in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania struck with a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), but it is the largest lake in the state as well as the headwaters of the Musconetcong River, which flows into the Delaware River.

Algal bloom is actually a misnomer. The problem plaguing lakes and reservoirs was an invasive bacteria that produces cyanotoxins, which, over a certain level, can be harmful, according to Leslie McGeorge, administrator of Water Monitoring and Standards for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Contact can produce a skin rash, but heavy concentrations can result in kidney, liver and nervous system damage.

These blooms strike Lake Hopatcong and other north Jersey lakes periodically. The difference in 2019 is that it struck early in the season and lingered, with damaging effects to local businesses, as well as tourists and residents.

Fred Lubnow of PrincetonHydro, environmental consultant to the Lake Hopatcong Commission, explained that under normal circumstances the blooms tend to come at the end of the summer. It was a combination of climate change and a wet spring that caused the bloom to strike early.

He explained at a meeting of the lake commission during the summer of 2019, cyanotoxin feeds on elevated levels of phosphorous. While some phosphorous always leaches into the lake, an unusual heat wave in June of last year followed by heavy rain sent an abundance of phosphorous into the water, creating the unusual bloom so early 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."

Asked about the prognosis for HAB for this year, Lubnow said, "This is a very different year."

He explained with the really mild winter, heavy weed growth came early. People were sticking close to home because of the pandemic and they took their boats out earlier and more often than usual, cutting up the weeds with the boat propellers and leaving them to float. But there has not been any indication of HABs this year.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," Lubnow said. There is still a full summer to go, but with storms coming occasionally he thinks a bloom may not have a chance to develop. In 2019, there were heavy storms in June followed by a mini-heat wave, which produced the optimal conditions for the HAB.

The occurrence of HAB is likely to be the new normal, as weather conditions allow.

"I’m afraid this is a new paradigm for the lake," Bruce Friedman, director of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Water Monitoring and Standards, said of the bloom at last summer's meeting. He noted aerial surveys of the lake must be supplemented by water sampling and testing.

The 2019 HAB disaster brought Gov. Phil Murphy out to the lake for his first visit in November 2019, along with Congress members Josh Gottheimer (D-5), Mikie Sherrill (D-11) and Tom Malinowski (D-7) and a number of state elected officials.

At the meeting, which was held at the Lake Hopatcong Station in Landing, which houses the offices of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation, Murphy promised $13.5 million in new state and federal money for prevention and mitigation of algal blooms. The Congress members promised the money would come into New Jersey in spite of the current administration’s cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In December, NJDEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe announced the funding would be available and issued requests for proposals for $3.5 million in grants for planning and projects.

The Lake Hopatcong Foundation received $500,000 for prevention and mitigation, Foundation Board President Marty Kane told the commission in the spring. Morris and Sussex counties, which border the lake, each pledged $25,000 to match the grant and the four municipalities with lake shore each pledged $15,000 in in-kind services.

The state slated the funding for innovative or proven programs to prevent or manage algal blooms.

Two innovative projects underway.

The first started in Landing Channel in Roxbury Township in June.

The Channel is a man-made portion of the lake designed to connect with the feeder canal to the Morris Canal, which allowed tourists to take a steamer across the lake to their hotels during the 19th century tourist era.

PrincetonHydro treated the channel with Phoslock, a treatment to keep phosphorus from exiting the soil into the lake water.  A week later, they sampled the water to measure the effectiveness.

The second area of the lake treated with Phoslock was Ashley Cove in Jefferson. That couldn’t be done until a green clean was performed, Lubnow said. He explained a green clean is a non-copper-based treatment for mat algae which builds up readily in the shallow cove.

Lubnow explained there isn’t much flushing of the water in the cove. He said they tried to install a large storm-water structure for the cove but were thwarted by other utilities in the area.

The second innovative project is an application of Biochar in four locations. Biochar is a woody material with a "high affinity for a variety of pollutants including phosphorus," according to a letter to the Lake Hopatcong Commission from administrator Colleen Lyons.

Biochar is placed in floatation balls or cages and tethered along a beach area or where an inlet enters the lake.  Lyons said it is a low-cost option for phosphorus removal and can be composted after it exhausts its capacity for absorption. The phosphorus won’t leach back out into the water.

The four areas where biochar was used are: the Lake Winona outlet, the Lake Forest Yacht Club (both in Jefferson) Lakeside Cove and Holiday Avenue near Ingraham Cove in Hopatcong and the stream near Edith Decker School in Mount Arlington.

There will be two more installations in Jefferson and biochar will be placed in Duck Pond in Roxbury and Memorial Pond in Mount Arlington.

The municipal Departments of Public Works are assisting with this project as part of the municipal match of the grant.

Nonpoint source pollution

The DEP has also set aside $1 million from a $3.5 million nonpoint-source pollution grant program for watershed planning, according the state’s press release. No local match would be required for these planning funds.

In addition, the state senators who represent the lake, Anthony Bucco (R-25), Steve Oroho (R-24) and Joe Pennachcio (R-26) are sponsoring legislation to allocate $10 million of constitutionally dedicated Corporate Business Tax revenues for grants for certain lake management activities for recreation and conservation purposes.

In a statement on the legislation, Oroho said the DEP can use already-approved funds. The senators are calling for a permanent source of funding for lake protection.

Nonpoint source pollution is pollution that does not enter the water from a specific pipe. The Commission received a grant from the Highlands Council in 2006 to study the problem and then used Environmental Protection Agency funds to create a Watershed Improvement Program (WIP). Another Highlands Council grant is also going to the WIP. The commission counted and studied storm water catch basins in all areas that flow toward the lake, not only those that are close to the water.

A press release from the Lake Hopatcong Foundation proposed aeration systems, phosphorous-locking technologies, stormwater infrastructure upgrades and newly-planted rain gardens as possible solutions.

Phosphorous exists naturally in the soil and can enter the lake in a number of ways. One of those ways is through storm water. Thorough road cleaning can help keep salt and grits out of the storm drains. In addition, Jefferson Township bought a vacuum-truck (a machine to clean out the storm drains) years ago, then gave it to Hopatcong when they purchased a larger one, according to former Jefferson Mayor and Lake Commission Chairman Russell Felter.

With the largest segment of lakefront, Jefferson Township has the most storm-water structures and invested in filtration basins, but, Felter explained, it is difficult for any municipality to properly maintain them because of financial and staffing limitations.

Residents are urged to maintain their seawalls to keep the soil out of the lake. Lawn-care products with phosphorous are banned in lake communities.

The Lake Commission recently announced a partnership with Rutgers Cooperative Extension Water Resources Program to offer rebates of up to $450 to homeowners who build rain gardens or shoreline buffers to stop soil erosion into the lake. Lakefront homeowners were also offered free online workshops on creating rain gardens or buffers and an optional follow-up rain garden design session with Rutgers landscape professionals.

The Commission’s goal is to install at least 16 gardens over the next two years, according to its website.

Donna Macalle-Holly of the Foundation said 60 people attended the two online workshops.

Aeration systems

There are three types of aeration systems. Hopatcong Borough is working on a demonstration project on the effectiveness of bottom-diffused aeration in Crescent Cove, Mayor Mike Francis said. He said other aeration technologies are being tried elsewhere in the state under the HAB initiative, so the Commission will be able to determine the best long- and short-term solutions.  The mayor said it would take a couple of years to determine the effectiveness of aeration.

Francis also secured funding to install sanitary sewers on Hudson Avenue in the borough. Hudson Avenue travels along Crescent Cove. Francis said connecting 40 homes to the sewers and therefore eliminating their private septic systems on the north side of Crescent Cove should improve the water quality there. He said those houses could be sewered without blasting, although there would be a good deal of jack-hammer work.

Most of the rest of Hopatcong is sewered. Mount Arlington is totally sewered as is the Landing section of Roxbury Township, the area near the lake, with the notable exception of Hopatcong State Park which the DEP promises will be connected soon.

Jefferson has only a couple of small treatment plants. Sewering the entire Lake Hopatcong side of the vast township was deemed to be financially prohibitive when the Musconetcong Sewer Authority was formed in the 1980s. At that time, authority engineer Lee Purcell commented it would cost as much to blast through American House Hill on the Mount Arlington-Jefferson border as it would to sewer the rest of the township.

In 2000, Jefferson Township commissioned a sewer study. Felter said the costs would be about $65 million (in early 21st century dollars) and the federal government would not back loans for property owners to install sewer lines because of a history of default on those type of loans. Jefferson adopted strict septic pumping ordinances and cracked down on lawn fertilizers.

Francis says he has not given up on his proposal to bring sterile grass carp into the lake to eat the type of leafy weeds that plague Crescent Cove, which becomes too shallow for the weed harvesters as the cove narrows.

The DEP turned down the grass carp proposal even though the fish are used successfully in New York and Connecticut. The state is concerned they may escape the cove, which Francis said is unlikely and not important since they are sterile.

DEP representatives told Francis they are reluctant to introduce an invasive species, to which Francis replied that walleye and channel catfish were introduced into the lake for fishing. He said introducing the carp would cost between $4,000 and $5,000 and they live for four to five years.

Francis pointed out the state issues 500 herbicide permits each year. There are 24 approved pesticides including three that contain glyphosate. He would like to see all of those permits ended. With the late start and secession of harvesting this year, Francis is worried that lakefront property owners might go out of state to purchase herbicides without a state permit

He emphasized the scientists at the DEP are willing to listen to his suggestions, it’s the leadership that tends not to.

Weed harvesting was started with the inception of the Lake Commission through state funding for the purchase of four harvesters, two large and two smaller. One of the small harvesters has been used by the Lake Musconetcong Regional Planning Board through a memorandum of understanding with the commission. Lake Musconetcong, formed as the Stanhope Reservoir by damming the Musconetcong River to provide water to the Morris Canal, is too shallow for the large harvesters.

The harvesters cut and pull weeds out of the lake so only a portion of the vegetation falls to the bottom to feed next year’s crop.  Herbicides, even if they are deemed safe, send all the dead weeds to the bottom.

The possibility of another HAB on the lake is still on the minds of all residents but municipal officials are happy with the fact the state assured them there will be no electric signs on Route 80 saying the lake is closed if a bloom returns. Instead the DEP created an alert system with color-coded advisories on the existence and amount of cyanotoxins. The state has a number of monitoring sites around the lake.

No one wants to see any alerts this summer, especially after the pandemic closed businesses this spring.

The DEP also set up a color-coded system to represent the threat of cyanotoxins which will eliminate closures when small concentrations are found or when cyanobacteria are in the water but have not become toxins, Lyons said.

See related story: Protecting Lake Hopatcong through the decades

About Jane Primerano

Jane Primerano has covered agriculture and environmental issues in the Northeast for nearly a decade after 20+ years of reporting on municipal and county government, police and education for weekly and daily newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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