The severity of toxic algae blooms like the one affecting popular Lake Hopatcong could be minimized if more New Jersey towns impose fees on property owners to pay for upgrades that reduce runoff into lakes and rivers, environmentalists say.
But some of the most ardent critics of a new state law that allows the fees to be collected through local stormwater utilities are legislators who represent communities surrounding Lake Hopatcong and other popular lakes and rivers in northwest New Jersey.
Those legislators are urging towns to reject what they call a "rain tax." They say allowing towns to create their own stormwater utility is another level of government that is unneeded in a state with 565 municipalities and 21 counties.
Supporters of the law say it's irresponsible for legislators to deride a measure that can benefit the communities they represent. The lawmakers say they are being fiscally prudent in a state with the highest property taxes in the nation.
"Not every town needs a stormwater utility, but when you have a problem like the state's biggest lake being closed for swimming it might be something you want to consider," said Chris Sturm, a water policy expert with New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates a balance between economic development and environmental protection.
Nutrients like those from fertilizer and septic tanks carried by runoff are the primary cause of Lake Hopatcong's woes, experts say. The current advisory against swimming and any other contact with the water remained in effect over the July 4th holiday weekend. It could last weeks if the recent weather pattern of short rainstorms followed by warm days continues, experts say.
The stormwater law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in March does not impose a wide-ranging tax on a community. It allows towns and counties to establish a utility and impose fees on properties where stormwater easily washes off — a leading cause of local flooding and high levels of pollution in the state's waterways.
The law gives credits to property owners who install anti-runoff measures like rain barrels, a rain garden or a ditch full of water-soaking vegetation called a bioswale.
Soon after the law took effect, the state Republican Party began urging its members to campaign against it town by town with slogans like, "Taxpayers are getting soaked!"
"Communities around the state recognize that, and many municipalities are passing resolutions to ban the rain tax and protect home and business owners," said Doug Steinhardt, chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party.
Among the most vocal critics is Assemblyman Hal Wirths, a Republican whose district covers Lake Hopatcong. While he acknowledges that stormwater runoff is a major environmental problem for lakes and streams in his heavily forested and mountainous district, Wirths said the law is not the answer.
"You don't need a new bureaucracy and a new tax to deal with this," he said. "We just had the governor sign a $38.7 billion budget and there's no money already in there to use toward runoff solutions?"
Among the towns that have passed resolutions saying they would not create a stormwater utility or impose a fee is Sparta, which sits just northwest of Lake Hopatcong and whose streams feed into the lake. Sparta's resolution, passed by the Township Council late last month, credits Wirths, state Sen. Steve Oroho and Assemblyman Parker Space for their opposition to the law.
Environmentalists say the fees are worth it considering Lake Hopatcong is the largest body of freshwater in New Jersey and a major seasonal economic engine for at least four border towns in Morris and Sussex counties. The algae bloom, first reported on June 27, comes at the worst time of year, when lake use is at its highest.
"If you own a lake house or have a business on a lake, this is one of the best ways to protect your investment," Elliott Ruga, director of policy for the New Jersey Highlands Coalition environmental group, said of the stormwater fee.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has advised against any contact with the water in Lake Hopatcong, including swimming, wading or water sports, because exposure to algae, or cyanobacteria, can cause flu-like symptoms, gastroenteritis, respiratory irritation, skin rashes and eye irritation. Long-term consumption of water with cyanobacteria can cause liver and bladder cancer.
"We have a lake closure due directly to stormwater and the failures over the years to deal with it," said Ed Potosnak, director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters, who grew up water-skiing and fishing on Lake Hopatcong. "We now have a tool to really deal with it. We just need the political will to use it."