At this time last year, Lake Hopatcong residents were just beginning to notice that the lake was not anywhere near normal levels, and the community might have a problem on its hands if the rains didn’t come soon.
Those rains didn’t hit until June, and the start of the season was a rough one for lake businesses, particularly marinas, and residents who couldn’t use their waterfronts. This year, it’s a different story; but, as goes the saying, “when it rains, it pours.” And the lake has been sitting above the high-water mark that designates a State Police “No Wake” speed restriction for two weeks.
“Until these rain events stop and give the lake time to drain off, [we’re at a] no-wake status,” said Art Ondish, mayor of Mt. Arlington and chairman of the Lake Hopatcong Commission. The rain event that had the largest impact was the one that hit over the weekend of March 13, when the recorded height at the Lake Hopatcong dam shot up from 7.5 feet to 9.8 feet in less than 48 hours. (The high-water mark is 9.5 feet.)
Even without the no-wake status, Ondish said there are reasons to be cautious. “Traveling fast on the lake during this time of year is dangerous,” he said. “Early launchers risk hitting the various type of debris that is floating on the surface and just below the surface… not to mention the additional debris from the harsh damage done to docks and bulkheads due to the rapid rise of the water level and slow ice crystaliziation and melt.” He pointed out that, because the Lake Hopatcong Commission remains unfunded by the state and, therefore, unstaffed, there is no coordinated effort to remove such debris at the moment. Though many focus on the lack of weed removal during the summer months, the commission staff would usually spend this time of year ensuring the safety of motorboat travel.
Nonetheless, as spring arrives, hopes are high for a much-improved high season on Lake Hopatcong. Employees at businesses all over the lake, from Lake’s End Marina in Landing to The Wearhouse Restaurant in Woodport, have expressed optimism about the upcoming months—particularly in light of the rainfall that returned the lake to normal levels after a 26-inch winter drawdown—and residents have an extra spring in their step, too.
“Lake Hopatcong is open for business,” said resident John Kurzman, a regular at Lake Hopatcong Commission meetings and a close follower of the water level. “The water is high, and no weeds to be seen.”
Kurzman thinks this is a great time to try his recommendation of an alternate plan for water-level management, a subject that is currently up for debate as a committee of local stakeholders and state officials began meeting this year to discuss changes to and implementation of the plan. “With the lake so high, it’s a great time to experiment with the outflow, etc., especially when more rain is anticipated,” he said in email correspondence. He cites that closing the gates when the level is between 9 feet (the spillway height of the dam) and 9.5 feet (the high-water mark) might be a better approach, since water will continue to spill over the dam and into Lake Musconetcong, and it would more aggressively deal with the potential for a dry summer. “What the [N.J. Department of Environmental Protection] does in March to June will dictate our drier season—July and August and even September—levels. Being proactive to keep the lake as high as possible below no-wake 9’6” as late as possible may be the least expensive (and only) method of weed management we have for this season, and maximize the recreational uses of the lake, which by statute is the goal of the Lake Level Management Plan.”
While the lake is above the 9.5-foot mark, however, Kurzman believes they should let water out as quickly as possible that downstream can withstand. State officials have always expressed that more water going through the gates was negligible if water was also going over the top, but according to Mr. Kurzman’s calculations, and that of an engineer he consulted, that incremental water through the gates can still cause an additional lowering of the lake by about 3 inches per month. "Those additional 3 inches per month, even when water is flowing over the dam, can be significant, as the date the water gets lower than the top of the dam (9′) would be earlier, and the mandatory outflow requirement drains the lake another 3.5 inches per month," he said.
The lake’s most active season is just beginning, but the discussion around its management has been going strong through the winter months. All of that thoughtful attention can now (thankfully) be mixed with boat rides on the ice-free, high waters. But, as Ondish stresses, be careful: the temperatures are still cold, debris might be lurking below, few rescue boats are available for distress situations this time of year, and the no-wake restrictions are still in place until the lake level drops below 9.5 feet at the dam.
Still, the coming weeks and months are looking bright and hopeful for Lake Hopatcong. And, perhaps, they may include opportunities to improve the water-level management system that has been the source of so much discussion during the last year.