As New Jerseyans shelter in place to protect themselves from COVID-19, the idea of summer can seem far away even if we can’t wait for it to arrive. The warm weather conjures memories of fun at the lake, fishing, bike rides, swimming, picnics, and other fun activities with family and friends.

Last summer the family fun at Lake Hopatcong, our State’s largest lake where I learned to fish growing up, was ruined by an unrelenting visitor. A massive and lingering toxic, hazardous algal bloom (HAB) affected lake waters nearly all season, significantly limiting recreational access and effectively leading to the closing of the lake. 

Unfortunately, Lake Hopatcong, 39 other lakes in New Jersey, and many more suspected lakes experienced similar problems and may likely have another summer ruined by toxic algal blooms. The primary culprit for this kind of devastation is polluted stormwater runoff. As rain runs off hard or compacted surfaces such as streets and parking lots, it picks up contaminants carried by streams or pipes, mixing with other pollutants and sediments to become a nutrient-filled cocktail with high levels of phosphorus draining into the lake. This creates a nutritious diet perfect for toxic algal blooms to thrive.

There is no doubt our lakefronts and upland areas are more developed than they were when I was a kid, and in exchange for these amenities we gave up natural systems to clean up stormwater and keep the food these algae thrive on from entering our lakes. Compounded with the warmer and wetter seasons due to climate change, unfortunately we can expect to see an increase in conditions perfect for HABs to flourish, specifically less snow and more rain driving sediment into the lake and less frost killing the harmful algae.

It’s important that we begin to make changes now if we want to save our local economies, improve our water quality, and ensure New Jersey’s precious resources are protected for future generations to enjoy. 

A new powerful tool is in the toolbox for our towns to manage stormwater runoff and prevent devastation to our lakes and communities. Municipalities now have the option of establishing a stormwater utility to clean up polluted runoff before it enters the waterways, which will save our lakes. It’s a funding mechanism approved by the state for a larger stormwater management program, and by far the most fair and equitable way to address water quality issues such as toxic algal blooms. It allows a town, county, or authority to assess a fee based on the amount of stormwater a property lets enter our waterways.

The average homeowner or renter need not worry— since it’s based on a “polluters pay” principle where families and businesses are given credits for reducing their runoff. Large commercial properties such as warehouses and big department stores could pay the largest fees, due to their large parking lots and volumes of stormwater if they don’t take steps to keep runoff from polluting our lakes with nature-based, green infrastructure that absorbs and cleans up water like a sponge.

New Jersey was behind the times before this new stormwater utility tool was created with 1,800 stormwater utilities existing across 41 states in the U.S.

A stormwater utility would raise the funds to pay for green infrastructure projects to manage stormwater by intercepting pollutants before they enter our lakes. These funds cannot be diverted to a municipality’s general fund and are legally dedicated, meaning the funds can only be used to correct stormwater problems. It could also lead to a range of well-paying local green jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Last summer’s Lake Hopatcong toxic algal bloom was called the worst on record, but without cleaning up the polluted runoff the problem will only get worse for Lake Hopatcong, residents, and the regional economy. Let’s not sit back and watch more summers ruined due to inaction.

It’s time for our mayors, town councils, and citizens to act. This is the year we should see stormwater utilities established throughout New Jersey to clean up polluted runoff. New Jersey is not a state that likes to follow others; we set the trend. Let’s get to work so that once we recover from COVID-19, we can enjoy our summers at the lake without worrying about more menacing toxic algal blooms.