It’s not news to anyone that this was an unprecedented year for Lake Hopatcong. The harmful algal bloom reports in June led to an advisory from the state that crippled local businesses and cast a sad shadow over summer for so many who were deprived of enjoying many aspects of lake life, such as swimming, fishing, and waterskiing.
Even before the algal bloom occurred, the Lake Hopatcong Foundation was among those local groups and individuals contacted by the Washington Post for a story they were writing about climate change, and specifically how New Jersey is a hot spot for rising temperatures. The reporters wanted to know if we had observed anything play out on the state’s largest lake as a result of the 2-degree Celsius increase the state has seen over the last century or so, a rise that is double the national average. Back in May, when we were having this conversation, it was a challenge to pinpoint anything in particular. Yes, we weren’t having the same thick ice cover in winters that history books had shown we had in the past, but we also have a lot more people using ice retardant systems around their docks, so maybe that is as important a factor? Later, when I would read their story, I learned from Rutgers scientist Anthony Broccoli that New Jersey has, since 2000, experienced 39 unusually warm months and zero unusually cold ones. That can’t be insignificant. And even more recently, Princeton Hydro showed us data that showed July surface temperature increasing by nearly 3 degrees Celsius in just the last 20 years. The data trend is very clear.
When the first reports of harmful algal blooms popped up in June, they were accompanied by explanations that boiled down to a handful of main culprits: the inflow of phosphorus into Lake Hopatcong, and weather that made that inflow more likely and algae growth more possible; specifically, strong rainstorms followed by hot, sunny weather. That weather pattern of heavy storms and warmer temperatures are both more likely as the climate warms, which means we might be in for more years with similar contributing factors.
I personally am a believer in the existential threat of climate change, and I believe that humans have at the very least accelerated the climate trends we’re seeing, mainly by taking carbon out of the ground and putting it in the atmosphere. I know that not everyone in the Lake Hopatcong community agrees with me on some or all of this concept, and that’s OK. What I do hope we can agree on is that we appear to be in the midst of a trend of temperatures creeping upward in our area, which means we are likely to face some new challenges for our beloved lake. This summer’s algae bloom—especially at its height in late June—is one example of this.
The good news is, we have the ability to respond to many of these threats by our actions now with regard to phosphorus flows into the Lake Hopatcong watershed. In some parts of the world, temperature trends are literally making places disappear underwater, or causing mass famine. There’s no way for some communities to fight it. For us, though, it’s different. We can make individual changes that help, of course, such as practicing septic maintenance, planting native plant buffers along the shoreline, reducing impervious surfaces, and cleaning out catch basins on a regular basis. We can also make big changes happen to protect Lake Hopatcong’s health, such as finally sewering the local areas that are still on septic in Hopatcong, Jefferson, and at Hopatcong State Park, using and maintaining more effective stormwater devices around the lake, and introducing new and innovative technologies to improve water quality. At the LHF field trip and Floating Classroom program, we can continue to educate local elementary school students and residents about how to minimize their “nutrient footprint” to take care of the lake they love to swim, fish, and play in.
Higher temperatures do not have to be a death sentence for Lake Hopatcong or its surrounding community. But in addition to advocating for sweeping global and national responses to climate change, we need to respond to the part of the threat that we can control locally: phosphorus runoff.
This Sunday, Weekend TODAY on NBC will feature Lake Hopatcong, in a segment that was inspired by the Washington Post story. Correspondent Anne Thompson interviewed several folks from around the lake, including myself. I don’t know what parts of our conversation will end up in the final version of her story, but she did ask me how it felt to see a place that means so much to me—where I grew up, met and married my husband, work, sail, and play with my kids—face the effects of climate change. Of course I told her that it was heartbreaking. But I also told her that I feel hopeful. This community cares about Lake Hopatcong deeply, and I have confidence that we will respond to this summer in a way that makes this lake healthier than ever in the years ahead.
If these climate trends continue, we might have to adapt in certain ways. Ice fishing may not be as robust as it once was, for example, or there may be new invasive species we need to combat that thrive in warmer waters. But we can make sure that Lake Hopatcong continues to be a source of joy, relaxation, inspiration, learning, and recreation for us and for the generations that come after us. If we respond to this crisis in a positive and constructive way, I have no doubt that will happen.