JEFFERSON - The Lake Hopatcong weed harvesting program was shut down for the year Friday without notice to local officials and apparently without a plan to get the harvesting machines out of the lake so they could be cleaned and stored.
Five seasonal employees were given their pink slips. Two full-time employees remain.
The move was made 10 days after the Lake Hopatcong Commission was told the program, which annually wraps up sometime in October, would continue for at least two to three more weeks.
Three members of the lake commission said Monday they had not been told of the change. All three said there should have been prior notice from the Department of Environmental Protection about the change.
“I learned about it (Monday) from phone calls and the press,” said Commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong. “There is a network around the lake. It works better than Facebook. When something happens, word gets around quickly.”
Now, he said, he was going to have to make calls to learn more.
The last he had heard about the program, McCarthy said, was at the mid-September meeting of the lake commission. Dan Bello, who supervises the program for the state, reported that the weed harvesters would be working on the lake for another two to three weeks into October.
The harvesting ends each year before the annual lake drawdown. This year, the lake will be drawn down by two feet beginning around Nov. 15. The lake is already low, about eight feet, one foot beneath the target of nine feet.
The state park website on Monday said this about the harvesting program: “To Be Completed in next 2-3 weeks: East of Raccoon Island; North of Halsey Island, to Prospect Point; East Shore Estates; Brady Channel; Sand Bar area near Halsey Island; Air Castle Island to Pine Tree Point, and then into Byram Cove; In 2 to 3 weeks, Sperry Springs shoreline, and Crescent Cove/River Styx Bridge area.”
Commissioner Richard Zoschek of Roxbury was also surprised by the news, of which he had not been apprised.
“Wow,” he said. “We expected it to continue for a few more weeks.”
Commissioner Anne Pravs said she learned of the shutdown Friday when she happened to be passing by Hopatcong State Park and saw four harvesters in the cove, and the program’s dump trucks parked on the beach.
“I asked what was going on and was told the workers were being let go that day,” Pravs said. The workers were downcast and somber, she said.
Worker Walt Wurster said he and the other seasonal staff members were told at the end of the day Friday the funds for the harvesting program, paid through the state Forestry Division of the Department of Environmental Protection, were being diverted to the state’s general fund.
“We all were being laid off because the money was needed somewhere else,” Wurster said. “What are you going to do?”
In May, the state’s 2015 $34.1 billion operating budget had a gap of $800 million, the legislature was told.
When he left Friday, Wurster said, the machinery was still in the water.
“This is disrespectful of the commission, the workers and the residents,” Pravs said. “Our workers deserved better.”
The workers had been pushing to harvest a record 3,000 tons of weeds this year, even after a later start because of trouble getting parts, she said. Still, they had harvested nearly 2,800 tons, she said.
Mayor Art Ondish of Mount Arlington, a long-time supporter of the weed harvesting program and former director of the lake commission, expressed frustration over the turn of events. He said he had been at the state park on Saturday and saw the harvesters still in the water. Other equipment was in Jefferson, also still in the water he said.
“This is an irresponsible way to treat a million dollars worth of equipment, and not how to treat our employees,” Ondish said.
It is time to again talk about user fees that can be controlled by the commission and used to benefit the lake, Ondish said. An effort to create such fees failed in the recent past.
DEP spokesman Larry Hajna said late Monday that his office was not aware of the sudden termination of the harvesting program.
The weed harvesting program has been identified as one of the key elements in place that have helped clean up Lake Hopatcong’s water by removing invasive and overgrown plants that clog coves and boat channels.
The program is run by the state under an agreement with the Lake Hopatcong Commission, which, while lacking operating funds, maintains ownership of the weed harvesting equipment, Commissioner McCarthy said.
The immediate concern, McCarthy said, is the equipment is still in the water and it would be the commission’s responsibility to remove, clean and store the machines. Going forward, if this budget situation is not settled, the commission would have to find funds to cover the costs of the program he said.
“This is an agency that doesn’t have enough funds to hire someone to record minutes, and now we might have to clean and store the harvesters,” McCarthy said.
The other concern is that the use of one Lake Hopatcong harvester on Lake Musconetcong is covered by the lease arrangement with the state. If that agreement does not continue, the use of a harvester on the smaller lake might also be endangered, McCarthy said.