Fresh frustration about the lake water level, pent-up anger about user fees, and apprehension about weeds this summer were all on display as more than a dozen area residents spoke up at the Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting on Monday at the Hopatcong Civic Center.
"This is the most disturbing prelude to a summer that I’ve seen in all my summers here," said Al Riha of Hopatcong. "Where are the common-sense politicians looking out for people who use the lake?"
As of Monday, the lake water level at the State Park dam, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, was at about 7.4 feet, more than a foot and a half short of the gage height at the crest of the dam. There appear to be several reasons for the shortfall, including the fact that this winter was a draw-down year (the level drops every winter, but every five years, the lake is drained considerably for dock repairs) and that the area was hit with a particularly dry January and February.
But the moves that have garnered the most attention from residents were a delay in closing the dam in December and a decision to let more water out through the dam this month on behalf of the Muscanetcong River, which flows downstream of the dam. That decision was made by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which controls the dam, to protect aquatic life downstream; specifically along a 1.4-mile stretch that connects Lake Hopatcong and Lake Muscanetcong.
"I can’t help but feel that for some reason the DEP has it out against Lake Hopatcong," said Ron Sorenson, owner of Lake Hopatcong Marina, San Bar Marina, and Woodport Marina. "We just ask the DEP, why are you fighting us all the time? Work with us."
Sorenson is one of several marina owners who expressed serious concerns about the lake level. Many have been unable to launch boats, use leased boat slips, or conduct any on-the-water business. "I understand that it’s a vital part of the state’s environment, and I don’t want to damage that 1.4-mile stretch," said Ray Fernandez, owner of Bridge Marina in Jefferson. "Unfortunately, the entire Lake Hopatcong environment is in serious condition, and it’s a tragedy for the people here."
Commission chairman and Mt. Arlington Mayor Arthur Ondish fielded the complaints, and continued to remind residents that the dam is controlled by the DEP, and that there’s nothing that can be done to get that water back, even if millions of gallons were lost due to mistakes in dam management. "I can understand everyone’s frustration," he said. "We have done everything we possibly can—there’s not much we can do. … We just have to hope for rain."
That wasn’t solace for some who believe the commission should be doing more to push the state to completely shutter the dam until the lake fills up. John Kurzman of Lake Hopatcong pointed out that the lake really contributes a small amount to the Muscanetcong River, which has other significant feeders starting 0.7 miles downstream of the dam. "I’m curious why we’re going to affect 45 miles of shoreline for 0.7 miles of stream," he said.
In addition to commissioner Larry Baier, who represents the DEP on the board, Deputy Director Amy Cradic was in attendance after spending the day touring the lake with commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong. She indicated that, although the dam couldn’t be completely closed, the lake’s condition and the current weather pattern compelled her to reduce the water flow from the dam from 5.3 million gallons per day to 4.2 million gallons per day.
Regardless, Ondish pointed out that the 4 to 5 million gallons that are released each day aren’t going to make a huge difference on the water level; it is estimated that each inch of water on the lake encompasses 60 to 70 million gallons of water. "The truth is, it’s making a pittance of difference," Ondish said, emphasizing that the need for rainfall is paramount.
On behalf of Trout Unlimited, August Gudmondsson of Hackettstown spoke to the commission in defense of the downstream environment, and was the lone person asking specifically that some water continue to be released downstream. "It’s an entire system, and you can’t sacrifice one piece of the system," he said.
Other residents, however, were skeptical, and many expressed concerns that those who live around Lake Muscanetcong and elsewhere in the state are misrepresenting the Lake Hopatcong community. "They’re representing Lake Hopatcong as people who do not respect other people’s water rights, and it’s not true," said Steve Gebeloff of Hopatcong.
Kurzman echoed that point. "People are making venomous statements," he said, adding that much of what he reads online about the situation implies that the lake is full of rich people who just want to drive their Donzi motorboats around the lake, which is not the case. "People out there seem to be against Lake Hopatcong having water, and they’re not looking at the big picture."
Other issues came up at the meeting, including a renewed discussion about the lake charging fees to users to help fund the commission and, therefore, weed harvesting, water testing, and other maintenance costs. The need for such income was enhanced last year when the state cut funding for the commission, which had to lay off all but one of its employees last fall. Several residents, however, spoke out firmly against the fees.
Weed harvesting itself was the focus of some discussion as well. Without funding or staff, the lake’s six harvesters were expected to sit idle this summer. But the commissioners are looking into ways to fund harvesting with at least two of the machines, and to find a place to store them on the lake. "It’s an important enough thing to do," said commissioner and Jefferson Mayor Russell Felter. "We’ve had enough bad publicity with the lack of water, now we don’t want a weed problem."
But for most of the meeting, the focus was water level, which has risen in response to the weekend’s rain, but still falls far short of many docks and fish-spawning areas. "Every inch is important," said McCarthy. "There are trailer ramps that are unusable now that may be usable if we get three more inches. The Raccoon Island Ferry is marginal at the moment. Every inch matters."