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Commission Takes Close Look at Weed Removal

Lake Hopatcong Commissioners on Wednesday got a detailed sense of just how much work goes into the weed-harvesting effort—and how far this season’s effort fell short compared with past years.

“I’ve been on the commission since it started,” Lake Hopatcong alternate commissioner John Risko said at the conclusion the evening work session. “And this is the best meeting I’ve ever been to.”Ron Jobeless (left) and Michael Calderio speak to the Lake Hopatcong Commission.

The work session, held at Mt. Arlington Borough Hall, brought in Michael Calderio, seasonal foreman of the weed-harvesting effort, and Hopatcong Department of Public Works superintendent Rob Jobeless, to talk about the nuts and bolts of the weed-harvesting removal on Lake Hopatcong. For two hours, the commissioners questioned Calderio and Jobeless, as well as seasonal employees Curt Mulch and Barry Marke, about the differences between the years the effort received full funding and more recent years, when it has not.

“It’s like night and day,” Calderio said. “There’s so much work to be done with only so many people, and 2009 was nowhere near what we needed.”

Calderio described a typical year, when the commission received full funding from the state: There were seven full-time staff members and four seasonal employees, and each was given a piece of equipment, such as a harvester, barge, or conveyor, to maintain. The six harvesters would be dropped in the week before Memorial Day, and split between two sites, one north and one south. The maintenance shop that was at Picatinny Arsenal during the rest of the year was dismantled and set up at Lee’s Park, and a whaler was launched there as well (a central location). The harvesters would be in operation from Memorial Day through about October 15; then they would be taken out of the water, steam cleaned, and evaluated, so any parts could be ordered. From November through the new year, the staff would participate in shared services operations, including cleaning out catch basins and, during five-year drawdowns, cleaning the lake shore. During the winter months, the machines would be taken apart and each piece of equipment would be properly fixed or maintained before the machines were put back together – – an effort that was expected to extend the harvesters’ working lives to 20 or 25 years. In April, the staff would again participate in shared services before launching the harvesters again for the following year.

When the state cut funding for the commission in 2008, all of the staff members were let go except for the administrator. But a last-minute plan to get some minimal weed-harvesting under way was assembled last spring, and Calderio returned as foreman for the summer months. He said when he first saw the equipment—which was not maintained and had been left in an outdoor location because there was no longer space for it at Picatinny—he was heartbroken. “And it was heart-wrenching to know that what was done in the past, we didn’t have the manpower to do,” he said.

Jobeless, who was heavily involved in the effort this summer as part of the agreement between the towns and counties, emphasized that the loss of employees took a toll on the equipment, which the commission invested money in (the large harvesters cost about $185,000). “It’s all about maintenance,” he said. “It’s a tough task, but you’ve got to give them equipment to work with, and without maintenance, you might as well put all of the [harvesters] in a parking lot and leave them there. What I saw was a crime against taxpayer money.”

Risko pointed out that the commission lost more than that. “I think one of our biggest losses is the loss of skill set,” he said. “That’s an investment, and we have to take care of that.”

The commission didn’t have hard numbers on Wednesday night, but administrator Donna Macalle-Holly said the tonnage of weed removal this year was just a small fraction of what has been removed in the past.

Over the course of the meeting, commissioners asked Calderio and Jobeless their thoughts on several ideas that the commission has considered, including the thought that volunteers could run the machines. Both were skeptical. “You need people who are skilled…who are going to get wet and go under the boat and [make repairs] on the water,” Jobeless said. “It is a job that is hard and becomes tedious, and I think some of that gets lost in the discussion.”

The idea of using Hydro-Raking, which lakefront homeowners can do to remove the weeds in front of their home, was also met with doubts. It can be costly, Calderio pointed out, and the weeds may have already seeded, or may encroach from beyond the scope of the raking effort.

Commissioner Tom Foley, who lives in King’s Cove, asked about chemical treatments, which his cove has used. Calderio pointed out that areas of the lake that spray chemicals would, in the past, call him to have the harvesting done first. This year, that didn’t happen. So the weeds were killed—but the biomass remained at the bottom and caused an increase in algae, which Foley said caused the cove to be green all summer. (Calderio also pointed out that the chemicals don’t kill all of the types of weeds on the lake.)

A component of the business plan, which has been prepared as a draft by a commission committee and will be presented at the October 19 meeting, suggests different levels of staff hiring. Those levels were outlined by commissioner Daniel McCarthy on Wednesday as either including one staff member (Macalle-Holly), which is the status quo, having two staff members (Macalle-Holly and Calderio), or having three or five employees, including some seasonal staffers.

From the perspective of those involved in the effort, the more employees, the better.

“The teamwork we had, knowing what we could do, that’s something to talk about,” said Marke, who was a commission employee for years and volunteers his time to continue the water sampling. “Having people work together for awhile is important.”

“You’ve got to have at least five guys,” said Jobeless, who said shared services with the towns might be an option. “Can I spare a guy? Maybe I could. I’ll do whatever the town expects me to do.”

But the crux of the issue, as always, is funding. “What we’re working on right now are short-term goals, getting somebody on board to start maintaining the equipment, and long-term goals, which is how we’re going to get funded,” commission chairman and Mt. Arlington mayor Arthur Ondish said. “At the state level, things are not looking good. We need to get funding, and serious decisions have to be made.”

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