As the Lake Hopatcong water level has remained steadily above the 9-foot spillway crest at the dam, the tempers at the Lake Hopatcong Commission meetings have been similarly even-keeled. The same issues, however, remain: how to best ensure that the water level is properly managed, how to deal with the weeds in the lake, and how to fund the commission itself.
“This is not an easy process at all,” said commission chairman and Mt. Arlington mayor Art Ondish at Monday’s August meeting in Jefferson. “We are working, and we understand this year has been a lesson in what happens when you don’t maintain the lake or have a real budget to work with.”
A committee is currently being assembled to look over the water management plan, in an effort to make sure the early-season low-water level doesn’t repeat itself in the future. Larry Baier, the commission’s representative from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, said he was looking to ensure that all lake interests are represented on the panel, including marina owners, private residents, and those who live downstream of Lake Hopatcong.
But Steve Gebeloff of Hopatcong pointed out that major changes don’t necessarily have to be made to the water-management plan that is already in place. “Since I’ve been at the lake, two drawdowns have resulted in [water-level issues] the following summer,” Gebeloff said. “Both times, if the plan was followed properly, there wouldn’t have been a problem. It might not be perfect, but the main thing is that the existing plan needs to be followed.”
Ondish said the goal of the committee was not to radically change the plan. “I don’t think it’s about rewriting it,” Ondish said. “It’s about looking at it and seeing what updating it might need.”
The weed situation continued to be a source of discussion at the August meeting, as the scaled-back weed harvesting effort (which Lake Hopatcong resident John Kurzman suggested be renamed “biomass removal”) has resulted in improvements to some navigational areas, but left some parts of the lake choked with weeds. River Styx, Crescent Cove, around Raccoon and Halsey Islands, the area near Lee’s Park have all been harvested, and the efforts are currently under way in Ashley Cove, and the navigational canals north of Brady Bridge. No areas south of Lee’s Park and River Styx have been harvested yet, but commission administrator Donna Macalle-Holly said the State Park area was next on the list. The entire effort will likely finish up by the end of this month or early September, because salary funding runs out in mid-September and the harvesters need to be stored. “It’s a little disappointing to hear we’re stopping harvesting at the end of August,” said Ron Sorensen of Lake Hopatcong Marine. “Boating season continues well beyond that.”
Ray Fernandez of Lake Hopatcong, president of the Lake Hopatcong Alliance, pointed out that some parts of the lake have actually fared well, even with the weaker harvesting effort. “A lot of spots are better than in past years,” Fernandez said. “Are you taking any survey?”
Kurzman repeated the same question, asking the commission to monitor which areas have thrived and to work to determine whether the five-year lake drawdown, the rapid refilling of the lake in June, or the harvesting effort might have contributed to the differences in weed levels.
Funding future weed-harvesting and biomass removal efforts was a regular part of the discussion, as has frequently been the case since the state slashed the commission’s budget. A commission subcommittee that is developing a business plan is expected to present a report at the next Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting, but talk of funding was woven into every part of Monday’s discussion. When asked whether user fees would be in place in the near future, Ondish said he thought it unlikely that any such fee structure would be in place by next summer, because the legislation for such a charge would likely have had to be in place by now.
Kurzman said he was concerned that the commission would talk about what responsibilities are outlined in the statute that created the group, but not about the funding source that is mentioned in the same legislation. “That same statute says you’re getting money from the state,” he said. “It concerns me that we’re looking at the statute and only talking about what you do, not where the money should be coming from.”
Several members of the public seemed resigned to the idea of user fees, but Kurzman said he hoped the business-plan subcommittee would at least hold off on them as a last resort. “Before people hear about boating fees, they want to know all funding sources have been explored first,” he said, adding that such fees, if implemented, should be fair, “not too much for one type of boater, not special exceptions for this club or that club.”
Cliff Beebe of Beebe Marina in Lake Hopatcong warned that any fees would be painful for lake residents—essentially, he said, it would be a tax imposed at a financially difficult time for everyone. “I lived through a depression,” he said. “The impact hasn’t set in yet, but it will be here.”
The financial strain on the commission itself was evident during a discussion on whether to renew pollution insurance for the weed harvesters, which runs out on August 31. The insurance costs $10,001, and reduces the balance in an already meager bank account that will have to continue to make unemployment payments for those laid off last fall. Research indicated that the commission’s liability was minimal if one of the harvesters were to spill fuel, but the commission ultimately decided to spend the money and not risk liability, though they plan to study whether the expense is necessary in the future.
In looking over the various issues on the table, Sorensen asked the commission if they could come up with ten objectives that they could accomplish and attach dates to them. “We talk about a lot of things,” he said, “but we don’t always get much done, it seems. There are no dates on these things, and dates put some urgency behind your objectives.”
In other business:
- It was mentioned that the lake is scheduled to be lowered 26 inches this fall, starting on Nov. 1. Beebe repeated his plea that the lake be kept full at all times, even through the winter. “I don’t like when I hear any mention of lowering the lake,” he said. “You’ve got to keep it full; that’s the law…Our forefathers did a beautiful job designing it.”
- Fernandez of the Lake Hopatcong Alliance asked the commission if they would answer a series of questions the alliance had submitted, which explore various aspects of the management of the lake. “We’d like to see if we could come up with some creative ways to safeguard Lake Hopatcong in the future,” he said. Macalle-Holly said she was looking into the answers, and Ondish said the two groups could meet and work together. “We all have the same goal,” he said.
- Macalle-Holly informed the public of a volunteer effort to pull water chestnut weeds—and invasive species—from Lake Musconetcong at 9 a.m. on September 19. To reserve a boat, call 973-398-7010. “They really could use the manpower to pull out as many of those invasive species as they can,” Macalle-Holly said. “Just please don’t bring your boat or any equipment over there,” so Lake Hopatcong doesn’t get contaminated.
- Mike Brunson of Hopatcong pointed out grant opportunities that the commission might have missed. “I think [contracted water resource management group] Princeton Hydro’s job is to draw these to the commission attention,” he said. “There’s a lot of money going out that we’ve missed out on.”
- Commissioner Daniel McCarthy of Hopatcong asked Baier if the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife could issue a report on cormorants, which are black birds that are growing in number on Lake Hopatcong. McCarthy said he’s read reports in Michigan of the seabirds doing damage to lake fisheries. “The question is, how much is too much?”
- Barbara Lowry of Hopatcong complained to the commission about the herring bait traps that are placed around the lake. “They’re dangerous,” she said. “On a sunny day, unless you’re right on top of them, you can’t see them.” State Trooper Ed Schnezler said there’s nothing the police can do about them, as long as they’re not impeding navigational channels. “As a boater you must maintain a proper lookout of what’s in front of you,” he said.