NJ Has 20 Coastal Lakes (Who Knew?) And They All Need Help

On Tuesday, I attended the Coastal Lakes Summit: Moving to a Healthier and More Resilient Future at Monmouth University.  The Summit was organized by the Urban Coast Institute (UCI), which strives to “serve the public interest as a forum for research, education, and collaboration that fosters the application of the best available science and policy to support healthy and productive coastal ecosystems and a sustainable and economically vibrant future for coastal communities.”  UCI held its first Coastal Lakes Summit in 2008.

The purpose of the 2013 Summit was to bring together natural resource managers and engineers, municipal officials, representatives of civic groups, community organizations, federal and state agency representatives, and local coastal and watershed management groups to indentify post-Sandy recovery and restoration priorities for the coastal lakes of NJ and to implement lake restoration plans.

John A. Tiedemann, director of the marine and environmental biology and policy program through UCI, said the “post-Sandy era of planning for recovery and restoration provides us with a new canvas from which to work.”

Before I could participate in the “new canvas” discussion, I first had to learn some background information about NJ coastal lakes pre-Sandy.  I had no idea that New Jersey has over 20 coastal lakes!  The coastal lakes, throughout Monmouth and Ocean County, provide local freshwater resources, offer important recreational and aesthetic amenities, and most historically were estuaries.  What I found most interesting is that many of these lakes used to have a connection to the ocean, before intense man-made development altered the landscape.

Look for Deal Lake, formerly known as Boyleston Great Pond, to see its historic connection to the ocean. Map from 1873.

Deal Lake is the largest coastal lake in New Jersey; other well known lakes include Lake Takanesse, Spring Lake, Wreck Pond, Stockon Lake, Little Silver Lake and Twilight Lake.

Over time, these lakes have become merely regional stormwater basins, collecting untreated and unmanaged stormwater runoff generated by the surrounding communities.  What were historically estuaries have become impoundments for excessive algae growth and nutrient loading.

While nutrient loading has been an issue within the NJ coastal lakes for quite some time, Superstorm Sandy has presented new issues:

Physical Impacts

  • Filling
  • Erosion
  • Shoreline failure

Structural Impacts

  • Failed or damaged weir/flume/dam
  • Storm sewer lines filled with sand and debris

Environmental Impacts

  • Water quality: contaminants, bacteria, nutrients, sediment
  • Debris: upland wreckage, boats, trees, other submerged material

After discussing these issues, the Summit attendees split up into different break-out sessions.  I attended the fish and wildlife issues session.  A lot of what we discussed overlapped with habitat restoration and water quality issues.

Since the coastal lakes were historically estuaries, many of the species needed a delicate balance of fresh and salt water and open exchange with the ocean to survive.  Anadromous fish, like New Jersey’s River Herring, are born in fresh water, spend most of their life in the ocean and then return to fresh water to spawn.  On the other hand, catadromous fish, like the American Eel, live in fresh water and enters salt water to spawn.  Both types of fish need an open exchange between the salt water ocean and the fresh water lake to migrate and spawn properly.  Over time, human population booms and over-development have closed these lakes off to the ocean, to prevent flooding (among other issues), but also causing declines in fish populations.  The River Herring is now a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act to be upgraded from a “Species of Concern” to Threatened or Endangered.  We discussed the questionable efficiency of fish ladders and whether they could be “superstorm proof” to help with this coastal lake issue.

We also spoke about fish kills in coastal lakes like Deal Lake after Superstorm Sandy.  It seems logical to assume that an influx of toxins and nutrients caused a large fish kill in Deal Lake, but it was actually caused by increased levels of salinity from the ocean.   The delicate balance between fresh and salt water in these coastal lakes is so vital for the ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.

It is also important to preserve habitat for other endangered species like the 20 state endangered types of aquatic vegetation, water fowl, and shorebirds like the Piping Plover, Less Terns, Oyster Catchers and Black Skimmers.

At the Summit, we came up with a few solutions to help with the fish and wildlife issues in the coastal lakes of NJ.  We determined that a holistic approach is needed to assess the entirety of the watershed, damming an inlet or letting a newly reformed connection to the ocean remain may affect baseflow of the headwaters farther up the run.  Although the lakes have become “franchise lakes,” with similar watershed size, percent impervious surface surroundings, human population and nutrient levels, each lake should be assessed on a case by case basis.

To help with stormwater runoff and to return the coastal lakes from impoundments back to estuaries, we thought to plant native species around the lakes, create maritime forests around water edges, restore riparian corridors, create soft shorelines that are invertebrate friendly so that nesting shorebirds have a source of food, preserve habitat for migratory birds, scrutinize the source of sand for beach replenishment projects, re-establish dunes, and preserve open space.

It is perhaps most important to have one project as a model that can be used to educate the public and local elected officials about the responsibility that comes with “stream-side living.”  The maritime forest project in Ocean Grove/Bradley Beach at Fletcher Lake can serve as a model for citizens to visualize the benefits of preserving the coastal lakes and restoring them to estuaries for generations to come.

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