JEFFERSON – The 2014 Lake Hopatcong seasonal weed harvesting program was shut down 10 days earlier than last year, a state official said Tuesday. But it also started up 10 working days earlier in the spring.
An outcry arose Monday when members of the Lake Hopatcong Commission learned that the five seasonal workers had been let go on Friday, even while the equipment remained in the lake.
Three lake commissioners on Monday said they were not told of the program’s end and said that information was contrary to a report they were given on Sept. 15 that indicated the harvesting season would continue into October.
But Kerry Kirk Pflugh, who represents the NJ Department of Environmental Protection on the lake commission, said Tuesday the program was halted following a decision to preserve $8,000 of the seasonal worker’s payroll budget for next spring.
Additionally, she said, the late season continuation of the program is weather related and affected by other lake conditions.
Due to a lack of rain, the 2,600-acre lake is about one foot below the targeted nine-foot depth, and a two-foot drawdown is planned to begin Nov. 15.
The weed harvesting program is run by the state under an agreement with the Lake Hopatcong Commission, which while lacking operating funds, maintains ownership of the weed harvesting equipment, said Commissioner Daniel McCarthy from Hopatcong.
The weed harvesting program has an annual budget of $155,000, Pflugh said. Of that, $36,000 is set aside for seasonal workers, which covers 900 hours of work. This year they had six seasonal workers, she said.
Pflugh said the decision was made to end this year’s program now in order to have enough funds to start up again in the spring and pay for seasonal hours through the end of the state’s budget year, June 30.
While the seasonal employees stopped working on Friday, Pflugh said, they remain on the state’s job rolls so they can be called back as needed.
She anticipated that two of them would be recalled to help the two full-time employees remove the machinery from the lake, winterize it and store it.
The weed harvesting budget includes $79,000 for two full-time employees, and $40,000 to cover costs of the machinery, including repairs, parts and the like.
Pflugh said the program started on June 6 this year, compared to July 5 last year.
Three members of the lake commission said Monday they had not been told of the change. All three said there should have been prior notice from the state Department of Environmental Protection about the change.
“I learned about it (Monday) from phone calls and the press,” said McCarthy of Hopatcong. “There is a network around the lake. It works better then Facebook. When something happens, word gets around quickly.”
On Tuesday, McCarthy said he was grateful the worker’s jobs had not been terminated, but was concerned what this muddled situation says about the future of the program, especially given the problem with stolen parts the program faced last spring, which delayed repairs to harvesters.
“I’m very concerned about the start up in the spring,” he said. Some areas of the lake are still heavily weeded. McCarthy said he was at River Styx area of Hopatcong over the weekend and the cove was deep with weeds. He wondered what it would be like in the spring.
“It is still warm and the water is still warm. The weeds will continue to grow,” McCarthy said.
Commissioner Fred Steinbaum said Tuesday he was concerned that the commission was presented with less than accurate information. He was another commissioner who learned of the shut-down by way of a call from the press.
“It is very disconcerting,” Steinbaum said. “There was no communication. That’s unnecessary.”
Commissioner Ann Pravs said the crews had removed more the 2,800 cubic yards of weeds from the lake this year.
The weed harvesting program has been identified as one of the key elements in place that have helped clean up Lake Hopatcong’s water by removing invasive and overgrown plants that clog coves and boat channels. Other efforts include road drainage and sewer work in the four lake towns to reduce the volume of run-off into the lake, and the banning of phosphorous based fertilizers.
In a 2013 report on the lake’s condition, Fred S. Lubnow, Director of Aquatic Programs for Princeton Hydro, LLC, a consultant for the lake commission, said the removal of weeds from the lake helps reduce the total amount of phosphorous in the water. Phosphorous promotes weed and algae growth.
In 2011, he said, weed harvesting removed 513 tons of plant biomass from the lake, which translated to 2.5 percent or 183 pounds of the total phosphorous in the water.
One pound of total phosphorous can generate 1,100 pounds of wet algae “goo” in the water, he said. Thus, the removal of 183 pounds in 2011 equaled approximately 201,300 pounds of wet algae biomass that had been removed from the lake, Lubnow said.