ROXBURY, NJ — Measured last week, the bacteria off two Lake Hopatcong beaches reached levels that last year would have prompted officials to issue statements warning people to avoid contact with the water.

However, due to a change in state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) policy, there were no big announcements along those lines based on the tests, which found elevated counts of the cells responsible for harmful algal blooms (HABs) at Mount Arlington Beach and at Lake Forest Beach.

Although there were no splashy warnings, the DEP did post on its website the findings of those water tests. It used its new, interactive, color-coded HAB alert system which gave Code Blue status to the waters off both beaches.

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That color means the tests found HAB cyanobacteria cell counts between 20,000 and 80,000 cells/mL in the water. The DEP said the Mount Arlington Beach water was found to have 26,000 cells/mL and the Lake Forest Beach water was found to have 26,375 cells/mL.

Under the DEP’s new chart, bathing beaches can remain open until cell counts exceed 80,000 cells/mL, double the amount that prompted beach closures last summer.

Use Caution

Nevertheless, a Code Blue designation puts the water into the “Watch” category and comes with this advice: “Use caution during primary contact (e.g. swimming) and secondary (e.g. non-contact boating) activities. Do not ingest water (people/pets/livestock). Do not consume fish.”

If HAB bacteria increase beyond 80,000 cells/mL, or the toxins they can produce exceed designated public health thresholds, the water becomes Code Orange and gets an “Advisory” designation. When that happens, public beaches are closed.

If the toxins increase to between 20 and 2000 ug/L, the water becomes Code Red, gets a “Warning” designation – meaning it presents a “high risk of adverse health effects due to high toxin levels,” but remains open for recreation.

It’s not until the toxins exceed 2,000 ug/L that the water moves into the most serious color code, Code Black, which is called the “Danger” zone. At that point, the state would call for “possible closure of all or portions” of the lake “and possible restrictions (to) access to shoreline.”

A Less Alarming Way

Announced in May, the new color-coded system was praised by local officials and business owners who, last summer, criticized the state for being too quick to order beach closures. They said the bacteria levels that prompted DEP action last year were too low to warrant the draconian action that severely harmed Lake Hopatcong’s economy for most of the summer.

But the new, more relaxed, warning system is not free of criticism. The New Jersey Sierra Club has been particularly vocal.

“Instead of cleaning up our lakes, DEP played games by coming out with a color-coded warning system,” said club director Jeff Tittel in a statement last week. “DEP weakened the standards instead of cleaning up our lakes and strengthening standards for harmful algal blooms ... They used to have a protective standard, but now they aren’t closing beaches until ‘advisory’ when levels are four times the health-based standard. Now, you can ‘watch’ the algae get worse as you swim and you may end up getting sick from it.”

The Sierra Club contends the state, to better deal with HABs, needs to establish stream buffers, enforce real Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) standards, strengthen rules on stormwater management, bring back Septic Management Districts and restore the state’s Lake Management Program.

There are currently several experimental HAB prevention efforts underway on Lake Hopatcong, funded by a $500,000 grant from the state: Fight Against Lake Hopatcong Algae Blooms Continues with 'Biochar' Bags and Algal Bloom Fight Begins in Roxbury Cove of Lake Hopatcong.

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