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Harmful Algal Blooms: Causes and Solutions in the Garden State


Despite some of our best efforts to protect the environment and water quality, we still fall short when trying to meet the demands of the “Clean Water Act” written in 1972 due to seasonal conditions and a long list of many other factors.  Harmful algal blooms (HABs) and eutrophication of lakes and other water bodies in the Garden State (the most densely populated state) is inevitable during the warmer months when storms are more frequent, sunshine is most intense, and recreation is at a peak.  Dense floating mats of algae can cause problems for wildlife and humans that come into contact with the contaminated water.  Cyanobacteria can produce neurotoxins that can hurt you and wildlife.  Examples include red/brownish or blueish-green algae in the ocean and freshwater bodies.  These blooms can also lead to fish kills and they should be reported to your local county health department, NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  For a list of confirmed HABs in NJ, information and a place to report a suspected bloom, use the following links:




Pictured above is a small pond in Monmouth County next to soccer fields where fertilizer is used and geese frequent. Note the reddish/brown color and thick mats of algae growing at the surface.Some factors that contribute to increased HABs are; improper or excessive usage of fertilizers.  Despite having a law in NJ about the types of fertilizers that can be sold, in the Garden State, we still have issues with eutrophication during warmer months of the year when demand for greener lawns, gardens and farms are at their peak.  Generally, fertilizer should only be used when ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY! It should not be put down before, during or immediately after storms and should not be a cure all for poorly managed land.  Moving water will carry fertilizers away and runoff into nearby waterbodies.  Users should follow the directions on the packaging exactly to mitigate negative effects to the environment and the wasting of your personal time and money.  Excess fertilizer on impervious surfaces (i.e. driveways, sidewalks, roadways, patios) should be swept up and reused during a later plant feeding. 


For lawns especially, leave the grass long! The longer the grass is, the healthier your lawn will be!  Increased foliage means more photosynthesis, more glucose production (plant food), more nutrient and water uptake.  Instead of bagging up your grass, allow it to mulch into the lawn with leaf litter and small twigs.  The organic matter will contribute to soil health and plant food.  Mulching will also help to mitigate drastic temperature fluctuations by shading/insulating the ground.  Mulching will also help to lock in moisture which decreases the need to water.  Just one beneficial decision will snow-ball into several more increases in efficiency saving you time, money AND the environment!  NJ has one of the most stringent laws in the nation for fertilizer usage and formula strength due to reoccurring problems with water quality and fish kills.  Here is a link describing the three phases of the “Fertilizer Law” from the from the NJDEP:  https://www.nj.gov/dep/healthylawnshealthywater/     


A confirmed HAB in this Monmouth County lake has been reoccurring for several years. Note the absence of vegetative buffers around the lake and the greenish-blue color of the water. Fertilizers, pet and animal wastes can freely flow into the lake degrading water quality.It all rolls downhill.  Regardless of whether you are a goose, a dog or a human with a failing septic system, we ALL contribute to the nutrient load going into the natural environment and ultimately our water supply.  If your house or business has a septic system, it is important to make sure that it is regularly pumped and inspected to ensure that it is in proper working order.  Look for obvious signs of failure like pooling water, bad smells and abnormally green grass over or near the drain field.  It is important to think of your septic system as a “biologically alive” filter because it is.  Harsh chemicals, antibacterial cleaners like soap or bleach, may negatively affect the microbes in your system and the soil that naturally feed off and break down the sludge that is filling up in your septic system.  This will help the system run more efficiently and last longer saving money and the environment in the process.  Here is a link to the brochure “A Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems” from NJDEP and another link provided by the EPA “Septic Systems Outreach Toolkit” which has lots of additional information, tips and tricks to keep your system running properly:




Please pick up after your pets and do not feed the wildlife.  The excess nutrients can stimulate algal blooms and outbreaks of disease if not properly cleaned up and disposed of.  If you see large flocks of geese or herds of deer hanging around, do NOT feed them! Many sources will tell you not to compost your pet’s waste or from wild animals because of the risk of disease (Round worms from dogs and Toxoplasmosis from cats).  It is not impossible to do it properly just do your own research! Make sure to compost it before you try to use it somewhere in the garden, use the compost around non-edible plants and obviously keep it away from where children might be playing. Putting pet waste in the garbage although widely practiced, is not ideal because you would be wasting a resource and contributing to the mountains of waste already in your local landfill. Landfill liners can sometimes leak, and the smells are often very oppressive.  Ideally, if you can’t compost, you would flush your pet’s waste down the toilet where wastewater treatment can properly take care of it (according to the EPA).  With millions of dogs and other pets across the country, it is a bigger problem than most people might think.  Here is a link to a guide for “Composting Dog Waste” from Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS):


Some wastewater treatment facilities even press and dry the sludge from waste streams to make granulated fertilizers!  These granules are used for golf courses and similar ventures where food production is not being conducted.  They have a weaker nitrogen and phosphorus content than the commercial varieties of fertilizer, they slowly release and that is better for the environment.  Commercial formulas are normally made from or with fossil fuels as well.  Fossil fuels (as we all know) are not very good for water quality.  Recycling sludge is a very progressive way to reuse a previously thrown away resource, that increases efficiency and helps the environment.  For an example of a sludge recycling facility in NJ, click here:      



Text Box: Asbury Park, Rain Garden filters water, controls flooding, provides habitat, absorbs carbon emissions, and provides cleaner air!cid:ac0b493b-6b5d-4ea4-ab7b-ecd350ccd8e9@namprd02.prod.outlook.comImproperly managed lands.  It is always best whenever possible, to have riparian buffers and other vegetative habitats like rain gardens to absorb excess nutrients and chemicals in runoff.  Operations with livestock especially can produce large waste streams that may be very hard to manage.  If they are left uncovered in the elements, they may find their way into bodies of surface water and or ground water.  Consider eating less meat and more plant-based proteins to prevent these operations from contaminating water sources. Even though there are procedures and laws in place to prevent this, we rarely live in a perfect world and the only sure way is to prevent it in the first place, is to not be excessive.  If you see something that seems out of the ordinary, say something first and if need be cid:7efd5c26-39bc-424a-bd5a-212abea3d2de@namprd02.prod.outlook.comreport it at 1-877 WARNDEP.  Here is the link for reporting to the NJDEP: https://www.nj.gov/dep/warndep.htm


Text Box: You can find a list of demonstrational rain gardens in NJ through the link provided below. Consider slowing and filtering the stormwater flow by installing a rain garden at your home, business, local school or community center.  Even just planting more native plants in place of lawn would be a big step in the right direction.  Native plants are more tolerant of local climate, they require less maintenance, watering, fertilizer and they provide the most benefit to local fauna.  Certain projects in NJ can qualify for a rebate or financial assistance.  For more information on rain gardens and other best management practices to protect water quality, contact your local Rutgers Cooperative Extension office, a local non-profit watershed group or for agricultural producers, contact your local NRCS office.  With recent changes to the 2018 Farm Bill, NRCS is now required to focus 10% of their funding and efforts on source water protection related projects.  Most people can agree that protecting drinking water sources is a TOP priority.  For more information about rain gardens or to read about NRCS programs and funding, use the following links: 



Text Box: Note again the proximity of development to the lake front, lack of vegetative buffers and the blueish-green hue coming from the water. Urban run-off and nuisance species like the large flocks of geese, paired with seasonal conditions can quickly degrade water quality. It is cheaper and easier to protect water than to do costly clean up after the fact. Make water smart choices!

Together we can all make a difference by making small changes in the way we live our lives. If everyone made small changes today, we would see drastic changes in the future.  Water quality is a problem of the commons that we all have a stake in.  We must all take personal responsibility for our local water quality.  For further readings on the issues surrounding water quality and suggested solutions, please refer to the following link from the EPA:



Mitch Mickley

Source Water Protection Specialist

New Jersey Water Association

505 Highway 9 Lanoka Harbor, NJ 08734

Phone: (609)-661-5026 Fax: (609)-242-7112