LAKE HOPATCONG, NJ – In the middle of Lake Hopatcong, a young family inspects phytoplankton – microscopic, plant-based organisms that form the base of the marine food chain, visible on a tablet thanks to a high-powered digital microscope.
A few feet away, a group of friends tests the lake’s clarity using a Secchi disk. Others measure water temperature and pH levels, serving as citizen scientists on this northwestern New Jersey recreational hotspot.
On their way back, they don binoculars and watch in awe as their boat passes an eagle perched on a tree limb, one of two nesting pairs of bald eagles known to make their homes in the areas surrounding the lake.
And this boat trip is possible thanks to their local electric company.
Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L), through the FirstEnergy Foundation, has provided grant support over the past several years to the Lake Hopatcong Foundation for the operation of their floating classroom. The 40-foot pontoon boat takes 90-minute educational trips every week from the dock at Lake Hopatcong State Park.
“We try to teach people what it is that you need to do to care for the lake and how to understand the ecology of the lake,” said Donna Macalle-Holly, grant and program director for the Lake Hopatcong Foundation.
The lake, which is nine miles long, needs constant monitoring to protect the health of its native plants and fish. In 2019, a toxic algae bloom threatened the Lake Hopatcong wildlife. These rapid growths deplete oxygen levels in the water and stop sunlight from reaching the plant and animal life in the lake, potentially suffocating every living species.
To combat the algae bloom, you need oxygen. Lots of it.
JCP&L crews recently completed site work to help power a third special aeration system along the lake, which has helped mitigate the threat and stabilize the ecosystem.
“We’re all about the environment, as well,” said Jackie Espinoza, a regional external affairs consultant for JCP&L who lives along the lake. “We’re supporting this initiative that’s helping educate the future generations on our natural resources, so to Jersey Central Power & Light and the FirstEnergy Foundation, it’s very important.”
Every time the floating classroom heads out, new visitors learn about the species of fish that live in the lake, the complex ecosystem that sustains them, and additional threats posed by flooding and waste.
The funding from FirstEnergy Foundation grants has not only helped the Lake Hopatcong Foundation purchase the tablets and digital microscopes, but supports their public safety initiatives and is used to keep the floating classroom affordable for the public and student groups.
“Before the pandemic, we had almost 1500 children scheduled, and we can’t get them away from those microscopes,” Macalle-Holly said. “They just want to keep looking for the different types of plankton. They love it.”