There was one thing that everybody agreed upon at Monday’s Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting: the recent rain has been good for the lake. Everything else, for the most part, was up for debate. The water level, the media attention regarding the water level, the weed harvesting, the condition of the weed harvesters, the new Lake Hopatcong Alliance, the needs of Lake Musconetcong—those and other issues continually came up at a standing-room-only meeting at the Hopatcong Civic Center.
Picking up where the May meeting left off, several residents and lake business owners vented frustration about the water level, which on Monday still measured at about eight inches below normal, and was several feet below normal levels at the start of the season.
“Understand that marinas are designed for the most part to function at the high water mark, at normal levels, and we’re still down 10 inches,” Ron Sorensen, owner of San Bar Marina and Lake Hopatcong Marine, said. “One-third of my slips are unusable. Essentially I have 100 customers who can’t put their boats in the water.…It’s not as bad as it was, but please don’t say everything’s OK and everything’s rosy, because it’s not.”
Cliff Beebe of Beebe Marina said he still has not been able to rent out a single boat slip. “I’ve got to worry about where my income comes from,” he said. He pointed to New Jersey state law 13:12-5 , established in 1922, which requires that “the lake level shall be maintained for such purposes at the normal high water mark,” and said letting any water out of the dam is in violation of that. “I want to know how they can violate the law,” Beebe said. “You and I violate the law and we’re going to get penalized….We have rights as property owners, and the state is trampling them.”
But not everyone viewed the water issue in the same way; some expressed concern over the way the water issue has played out in the media. “If you read the Daily Record today, it says that Lake Hopatcong is experiencing ‘falling water levels,’” said Harry Gedicke of Landing. “The lake’s usable, but we’re not getting very good press at all…. Marinas and restaurants are wondering why they don’t have any business. They’re chasing them away by telling people there’s no water in the lake.”
John Kurzman of Lake Hopatcong said his concern lies with the long-term record keeping. He said a March resolution that attributed the low water level to a dry winter should be amended to reflect mismanagement by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which let too much water out of the dam at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. “You need to codify these things because history changes,” he said. “You are the representatives of the lake… you are [writing] history.”
The commissioners said a water management committee would evaluate the entire situation. “In my opinion, the drawdown was mismanaged,” commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong said. “The management plan needs to be fine-tuned, and it needs to be followed. The committee is going to look and see to it that it’s implemented and followed in the future.”
Commission chairman and Mt. Arlington Mayor Arthur Ondish said residents need to look ahead at what can be done to protect the lake in the future instead of dwelling on water that was lost months ago. “This was a freak spring with very little water,” Ondish said. “There are a lot of factors that contributed to the problem, but you’ve got to get over it and move on.”
A particularly heated exchange arose when Sorensen told the commission that he and Bridge Marina owner Ray Fernandez met with trustees from the Musconetcong Watershed Association of Lake Musconetcong, which receives the water that is let through the Lake Hopatcong dam. Sorensen said the people who had been doing testing determined that the 4.2 million gallons of water that are currently being let through the dam aren’t needed to sustain the downstream habitat. That was expressed in an email to Ondish, who sent a reply stating that the DEP requires that 4.2 million gallons be released each day.
“It seems to me that you have the potential for these two groups that are adversarial to work together,” Sorensen said. “You’ve got an opportunity to work things out and you lose it.”
Commissioner Richard Zoschak of Roxbury said any such correspondence should be sent to the commission office, not directly to the chairman. “It has to be a formal letter,” he said. “We operate as a government here.”
Fernandez took issue with the fact that the letter wasn’t distributed to Ondish’s fellow commissioners. “You shut down an opportunity,” he said, asking afterward when Ondish’s term as chairman ends and if he was planning to resign. “I’m getting the feeling that one of the major problems for this commission is the chairman.”
Ondish, who said he would stay chairman until his appointment from the governor ends and has no plans to resign, defended his handling of the email, saying that official commission correspondence needs to come through the proper channels. Ondish also said that the DEP has made it clear that there will be no further reduction in water discharge from the dam.
Lake Musconetcong board chairman Doug Zellmann asked the commission to keep downstream in mind, and said that two days after the DEP reduced dam water flow from 5.3 million gallons a day to 4.2 million, the lake dropped 10 inches in areas—a figure that some openly doubted later in the meeting. “You look at your worst cove here, and imagine your whole lake looking like that,” Zellmann said. “Yes, turning the water flow down on Lake Hopatcong does affect things down the road.”
The other major issue to come up at Monday’s meeting involved the new weed-harvesting plan (see story: Commission Plans Scaled-Back Weed Harvest ). Because the municipalities and Morris County came together to volunteer labor, storage, and maintenance for weed harvesting (which was not going to occur this year because of lack of funding), the DEP granted the commission $68,000 for a smaller-scale harvesting effort this summer.
Ondish said he was proud of the localities for coming together to create the plan, but emphasized that people shouldn’t have high expectations of the harvesting program this year because there will be fewer harvesters running and less experienced operators running the machines. He invited members of the public to donate to the fund that will pay for the harvesters to run this summer. “We’re going to do the best we can out there,” he said.
Commissioner and Jefferson Mayor Russell Felter took a moment to shelve the acrimony in the room. “We’ve been negative about everything,” he said, referencing the talk about the water level, the scaled-back nature of the harvesting, and the disrepair that the harvesters are in because they were kept outdoors through the winter. “We don’t have to say the world’s falling apart. We have to be positive. We’ve got to be positive as a commission and move ahead.”
The Lake Hopatcong Alliance, a new group that kicked off with a rally attended by 300 people on Sunday, made itself known at the meeting as well. In addition to a dozen or so people wearing shirts emblazoned with the Lake Hopatcong Alliance logo, Kurzman spoke to the commission about the nascent organization. “This is supposed to be a group that represents the people,” Kurzman said. “These two groups [the commission and the alliance] can be complementary, a government organization and a not-for-profit organization. Let’s keep personalities out of it and hope the groups can work together.”
At the end of the three-hour meeting, it wasn’t clear that tensions would be dissipated anytime soon, though. Beebe, who stayed for the full meeting despite it being his 77th birthday, smiled afterward and said, “It’s just that important.”