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Weed Harvest Unlikely This Year; Water Level Still Causing Worry

The Lake Hopatcong Commission discussed a range of topics on Monday, including the success of water-quality-improvement efforts and the rapid rise of the lake level (and subsequent ice damage to docks) over the weekend.  But a theme in meetings these days has been the lack of funding, and with the state in a fiscal crisis, Trenton money for commission operations—particularly weed harvesting—seems unlikely.

lhc_-_mar2010_-_general.jpg“There’s no way we’re going to get weed-harvesting operations done this year,” said chairman and Mt. Arlington mayor Art Ondish. “It’s the middle of March…and things are at a standstill.  It’s going to get ugly.”

The funding issue wasn’t the only source of frustration expressed on Monday.  Those who have been keeping track of the water level readings at the dam in Hopatcong State Park noticed repeated instances where the water-level management plan that is in place was not followed.

Lake Hopatcong resident John Kurzman said he wasn’t complaining about the fact that the lake is at the high-water mark this early in the season, especially after such low water levels to start out the summer of 2009.  “I’m thrilled the lake is full,” he said. But he added that the lake is supposed to be maintained at or near the 26” drawdown level, and that clearly isn’t being followed. “Why are they not following the lake management plan?  The DEP ought to be honest about what problems they have.”

Ron Sorensen of Lake Hopatcong Marine likened it to an issue in the fall, when the lake was being lowered at a faster rate than it was supposed to be. “It’s not important to them to follow the plan,” he said.  Sorensen is a representative on a committee that brings together local stakeholders and Trenton officials to determine the best water-level management plan. But he seemed to be discouraged by what was actually happening at the lake. “Why am I at this meeting if they’re not going to follow [the plan] anyway?”

The N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s representative on the board, Kerry Kirk Pflugh, said she thought the committee meetings were making progress in that regard. “The question right now is, is this the right plan, and if the plan is consistent with reality,” she said.  The two discussions so far, she said, had made significant progress, but there are still several issues to be worked out.

lhc_-_march2010_-_macalleholly.jpgAdministrator Donna Macalle-Holly said she looked back at the data and found that the plan had not ever been properly followed during the 5-year drawdowns dating back to 1976.  Those statistics led her and several commissioners to suggest that perhaps the nature of the lake and outside factors make it impossible for the dam control to be properly administered.

Commissioner and Jefferson mayor Russ Felter said he thought the commission should send a letter to the D.E.P. to see why the plan is not being followed, and if there’s a problem in implementing it, what that problem is. “We have to figure out what has to happen so we can follow the plan,” Felter said. “I’m not throwing anybody under the bus here, but the plan needs to be followed.”

Ondish pointed out that many of these problems would likely be resolved if the dam was upgraded to modern technology—as it stands, the system is antiquated, and involves a lot of specific know-how to operate; something only a few people are trained to do.  The way funding in New Jersey is going, however, an upgrade to the dam seems unlikely.

Another major part of the discussion on Monday involved one of the commission’s primary roles: to protect the water quality of the lake.  Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro, which conducts water-quality projects on the lake through grants obtained by the commission, spoke to the group about many of his efforts.

He pointed out that the cool, rainy summer in 2009 resulted in the lake not being as stratified as usual, meaning the temperature was more uniform throughout, without an anoxic zone established in the deeper waters of the lake. 

Phosphorus levels have remained low on the lake, he said, but algae levels and blooms have increased.  Lublow suggested that pollutants carried with heavy rainfall might have transported deeper-water algal blooms or phosphorus-rich water to the surface, but said it is more likely that the lake’s food web is the source of the problem, specifically with regard to zooplankton, which consume algae.  This could be caused by a high abundance of zooplankton-eating fishes, such as alewife, golden shiners, young white and yellow perch), as well as a species called Leptodora kindti—“about two-to-three times the size of a pinhead,” which eat herbivorous zooplankton.  “We haven’t seen this organism on the lake before,” Lubnow said. “If the phosphorus levels are going down and the algae is not, it could be because you have to manipulate the food web.”  He said the Leptodora are something Princeton Hydro will continue to monitor.lhc_-_mar2010_-_lubnow.jpg

Lubnow also said the aquatic plant biomass removed last summer—253 tons—was only 16 to 22 percent of the amount harvested in previous years, and resulted in a significantly lower level of phosphorus removal than the commission’s target.  This was the result of an abbreviated weed harvest, due to a lack of funds, and is likely to be an issue again in 2010.

Aqua-Filters installed in Crescent Cove have proved to be effective: Lubnow’s data showed that phosphorus concentrations dropped by about 30 percent.  An EPA grant to continue similar projects has been increased to $800,000, and will result in a series of efforts, including projects on Cherry Road, in Ashley Cove, and on King Road, along with a bioinfiltration swail at Hopatcong State Park, a rain barrel demo project with a small community or neighborhood association, annual monitoring for the next three years, stormwater monitoring, a public-outreach project focused on rain gardens, and data analysis.  The nature of the grant will not allow it to be used for weed-harvesting efforts.

Lubnow and Macalle-Holly also detailed other grant applications that were in the works, which would keep the water-quality side of commission operations running, even if funding for the other aspects of the group’s mission remained uncertain.

In other news:

•    A planned discussion and vote on the commission’s business plan was delayed because of several absent members, and Felter’s early exit from the meeting to attend a gathering of flood victims from the weekend’s storm.
•    Ray Fernandez of Bridge Marina pointed out that the commission should keep an eye on how user fees are enacted at Greenwood Lake, which may implement such fees this year.  Kirk Pflugh invited the public to attend a meeting on the subject, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Village of Greenwood Lake Senior Center.
•    Fernandez also asked the commission to encourage residents to write letters to Trenton asking for funding to be unfrozen for I BOAT NJ grants, so the Lake Hopatcong Alliance might receive funding for a variety of projects planned to enhance the lake this year.  The Lake Hopatcong Commission also submitted an application for grant money for weed-harvesting operations. 
•    Steve Gebeloff invited the public to attend a fundraiser for the Lake Hopatcong Alliance on May 14 at the Jefferson House, which will include a presentation from Marty Kane about the history of the lake.
•    The suggestions made by the commission to the state regarding amending laws regarding lake use, such as a more specific definition of Woodport Cove, and a change in the lighting requirement on bait traps, were not incorporated into state code.  “It would have been nice if we had had the opportunity to testify,” Ondish said.

The next meeting is scheduled to take place at 7 p.m. on April 19 at the Jefferson Municipal Building.

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