Several recent heavy rainstorms have made a bad situation worse at Lake Hopatcong, where a harmful algae bloom caused by stormwater runoff has prompted the state Department of Environmental Protection to ban swimming and most other water-related activity.
The ban, which has been in effect for the past three weeks, could last the entire summer if high levels of blue-green algae, known as cyanobacteria, continue to be present.
The DEP has warned having contact with the algae-tainted water may cause allergy-like reactions, including flu-like symptoms, gastrointestinal distress and breathing and eye irritation.
To remedy the situation — or address others like it — environmental groups are urging local decision-makers to create community-based stormwater programs that can levy fees on businesses and residential properties that have paved parking lots and other impervious surfaces that contribute to stormwater runoff pollution.
It's allowed under a law Gov. Phil Murphy signed earlier this year. It's been described as a "rain tax" by critics who say government doesn't need more ways to collect fees from residents and businesses.
Henry Gajda, a public policy associate with the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, said what’s happening is not really surprising.
"The more rain that comes down in heavier doses, the more stormwater runoff there’s going to be," Gajda said.
Heavy rainfall washes lawn fertilizers, oil and other chemical pollutants down storm drains that wind up in lakes, streams and other waterways.
"We can look at big religious institutions and their big parking lots, big property owners like strip malls that have these big parking lots and malls — they’re really the big culprits," Gajda said.
The funds raised by imposing a stormwater utility fee would be used to create so-called “green infrastructure projects” that would help to control stormwater runoff.
“It’s a tool for towns, municipalities, counties or regions to use to effectively and equitably address stormwater pollution," Gajda said. "Green infrastructure projects act as natural systems that control flooding and polluted runoff, and that would then purify the water, put it back down into the ground.”
Gajda said the new law basically says "if you’re contributing to this problem, then you would pay a fee based on your contribution."
But Hopatcong Mayor Mike Francis doesn’t think creating local stormwater utilities that charge fees is the answer.
He said the has more about a thousand storm drains “so my question is what kind of help can we get from the state to put filters on them, for example, that filter out the phosphorous and the nutrients that feed this algae," he said.
Besides installing storm drain filters, Francis said installing some type of a pumping system to improve water circulation flow in the lake could help address the problem.
"You fix it by taking appropriate steps to interfere with the nutrients that make this algae grow," Francis said.
He also suggested the state and federal government should do more to help the town extend water lines, so local residents don’t have to draw water from Lake Hopatcong for their everyday use.
"My expectation from the state and the federal government is to help us with that, this is a major health issue."