The 60-inch drawdown of Lake Hopatcong, done every five years, could be considered the New Coke of water management plans, such is the legend for potential damage it has done to the lake’s reputation.
While the legend is overstated, the lake community was approaching the 2013 drawdown with trepidation since the 5-foot drawdown in 2009 left the lake shallow and resulted in a lawsuit by lake businesses claiming loss of business.
And in 1988 The New York Times reported on another 5-foot drawdown that, because of a tricky and mild winter, resulted again in a shallow
lake at the start of the boating season.
But this year the ice at Morris County’s Lee’s County Park Marina is tickling the bottom of the tire bumpers hung along the grey docks, a sign of both how far Lake Hopatcong had come, and how far it has to go.
The depth of the lake in Van Every Cove is a sign that a winter of snow and rain has answered one of the key questions about the drawdown that started on Sept. 22: Would the lake fill up in time for the spring fishing and boating season?
The answer, so far, appears to be yes.
On Feb. 5 the meter at Landing recorded the lake’s depth at 6.23 feet, a 2.5-inch rise over four days as more snow swept across the region, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
And with a thick ice cover, hills of the watershed draped in white from recent storms and more snow in the forecast, it appears there is sufficient water in different forms to fill the lake. A concern, said state officials, is that the watershed surrounding the lake has not yet been replenished by the precipitation.
The 5-foot drawdown drops the lake to a level of four feet. The goal is to bring the lake to seven feet, its average winter depth. Summer depth is maintained at an average of nine feet.
“Right now the lake has risen to six feet. That’s about one foot down from our usual winter level, even with hard ice,” said Bob Considine, a press officer with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. “But we are inching up, thanks in no small part to the multiple rain and snow events.”
Lake Hopatcong is lowered 26 inches annually to offer property owners some protection against ice buildup that can damage lakeside facilities. Every five years the state drops the lake five feet to allow for the inspection of docks and seawalls that are normally underwater, and to allow for some shoreline cleanup.
Ray Fernandez, owner of Jefferson’s Bridge Marina, who unsuccessfully sued the state last fall to halt the 5-foot drawdown, said the lake’s current level is good news.
At six feet in February, the lake is at a level that puts it on target to be full before spring, he said.
Fernandez said the level rose in part because the state stopped the drawdown 16 days early, an outcome, he believes, of his lawsuit.
On Dec. 1, the DEP closed the Landing dam, reducing the flow to the required 12 cubic feet per second. The move followed a 90-day dry spell that resulted in moderate drought conditions around the lake, the department said.
Fernandez said his past concerns about 5-foot drawdowns was that they seemed to take place without apparently much thought about the ability of the lake, because of weather and other conditions, to recover.
The 2009 5-foot drawdown spawned a lawsuit by marina owners and others, including Fernandez, because the lake did not recover and the litigants claimed financial damages.
This year, Fernandez said, the early end of the drawdown is an indication the state “is thinking through the process.”
Overall, Fernandez does not favor drawing down the lake for repairs that, he said, could be done, albeit at perhaps a higher cost, at normal water levels, or for a cleanup that generally could be done from a boat in shallow water. He said he annually cleans the dock areas at his marina by boat.
For Lisa Palanchi of Mount Arlington, dropping the level of the lake by five feet exposed problems to her dock and seawall below the waterline that would not have been evident otherwise.
The seawall and cement dock date to the 1900s and were in need of major repairs, she said. Repairs made in 1996 added wooden steps on top of the old cement steps, but it was not safe.
The underwater structures had deteriorated and needed shoring up. In addition, a stream running off the hill across the street from her house flowed under the dock and seawall creating a washout, which weakened the dock.
That damage would not have been evident without the 5-foot drawdown, which left the structure exposed for inspection, she said.
Her contractor had to create a new channel of small rocks to divert the water away from her structures to limit the potential of more damage, Palanchi said.
“I’m a proponent of the drawdown,” Palanchi said.
There are many other 100-year-old lakeside structures that need repairing and are not easily accessed unless exposed.
Scott Wood, owner of a marine construction business on the lake, said the drawdown is a good thing.
“It gives a chance to inspect water facilities, especially older ones, and this year lots of tires, trash and other material were removed from the lake,” he said. “I’ve been here all my life. The drawdown is a good thing, as is the possible idea to examine the results after each year and maybe adjust the program. This year the state shut the dam early because of drought conditions. But generally the lake level recovers unless there is human error.”
The drawdown provides an opportunity to remove debris that has collected in the lake, said Jessica Murphy, executive director of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation, which sponsored a lake-wide cleanup effort in November last year.
“The cleanup removed an incredible amount of litter,” she said.
The tally by the Foundation showed 400 volunteers hauled nearly 12 tons of trash out of the lake. The volunteers worked with Department of Public Works crews from the four lake towns, two counties and maintenance workers from Hopatcong State Park to collect and dispose of the debris.
A list of items collected included paper bags, plastic and glass bottles, cans, picnic utensils, food wrappers and containers, toys, and cigarettes and other smoking materials. Trash collected also included items related to fishing on the lake: bait containers, buoys and floats, fishing line, lures and nets, and rope.
Volunteers removed nearly 1,500 tires, some batteries, appliances, car parts, 55-gallon drums, building materials, carpets, lamp shades, bikes, street and road signs, golf balls, dock lights, and a Jet Ski.
“This was a very important effort,” Murphy said.
She suggested that a unified public education effort might help reduce the amount of debris that enters the lake.
The recent cold weather, the repeated storms and the rising water have raised the issue of the impact of thick ice on lakeside facilities.
DEP’s Considine said the department received a couple of calls about ice issues, and the regional superintendent and staff have been assessing conditions.
They did not find any definite signs that ice had caused damage, “But it’s something we are mindful of and continue to monitor. If the water rises and the ice maintains, it could conceivably become a bit of a balancing act as we’re responsible for the lake recovery and the prevention of property damage.”
Fernandez still wonders if there is a way to accomplish the varied goals of the lake towns, the state and the residents without draining millions of gallons of water from Lake Hopatcong.
He is concerned the controversy over the 60-inch drawdown is what people in New Jersey associate with the lake, even though historically the great majority of the drawdowns have been successful.