ROXBURY, NJ – Reacting to the pain being felt by Lake Hopatcong area business owners, a legislator convinced the state last weekend to stop using the digital signs on highways that were warning people about contacting the lake’s water.

The goal of the signs, on highways including Route 80, was to dissuade people from driving to Lake Hopatcong only to find public beaches closed to swimming, including Hopatcong State Park in Roxbury.

Swimming remains disallowed at the park and other public beaches due to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) advisory against coming into contact with lake water because of an ongoing bacterial outbreak called a harmful algal bloom (HAB).

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Although the DEP advisory remains in effect, the digital signs now make no mention of the lake whatsoever.

“This came about as result of my request of the DEP to change the wording on the (state Department of Transportation) DOT signs a second time,” said state Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco (R-25th Dist.). He said the state toned down the initial signs to note that boating was OK. But the next line warned "no contact with water," and continued to anger Bucco's lake area constituents.

“The wording of ‘no contact with the water’ was an issue for many of the businesses around the lake," he said. "They felt it was scaring people away. As a result of that I went back to the DEP and asked them if they could just change it ‘swimming advisory.’”

Bucco said the DEP asked him whether he thought the business owners “would be happy” if the state “eliminated the language on the signs completely.”

He said he spoke to several marina owners and restaurateurs. “The consensus was they felt taking down the language was better than having the signs as they were currently worded, so I asked DEP to go ahead and do that.”

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The state’s goal in posting the messages on the digital signs was to prevent people from driving to the lake only to learn - when they arrived - that they couldn't go in the water. Asked what he thinks will happen this weekend at the state park, now that the signs are no longer active, Bucco voiced a wait-and-see approach.

“Obviously, we’ll have to deal with that,” he said, noting that – while swimming is banned – the park remains open. “If people are coming to the park they can utilize the park,” Bucco said.

He said he believed the signs served their purpose, but de-activating them is “a good thing” because it will, for people who’ve been seeing the foreboding messages, “give the incentive to go up and enjoy the lake again.”

On Friday, the state lifted its water contact advisory for the Indian Harbor area of the lake – a section accessible only by boat – but also published testing data that showed the bacterial bloom getting worse in many areas.

Bucco recently warned that the risk posed by the HAB is real and was causing rashes and other medical issues. He now suggests the DEP’s warnings might be exaggerated.

“I was on the lake a week or two ago and it seemed to me there were people on the water and on the lake,” he said. “It’s hard for them (the DEP) to say this is serious.” Bucco said he and other legislators might take a hard look at whether the DEP's standards are too conservative, given that many other states have higher HAB cell count thresholds before swimming advisories are issued.

He also said the digital signs were warranted at the beginning of the HAB but are no longer needed. 

“The reason for the signage was, in the very beginning, the DEP had a concern about the impact on the health of people who came in contact with the water,” he said. “I think they were concerned this might end up becoming a bigger problem than it ultimately became. Now, they’re willing to take those signs down and allow people to go up to the lake and educate themselves as to what the advisory means and make decisions based on that information.”