The Lake Hopatcong Commission has, in recent years, become accustomed to complaints about too much water being let out of Lake Hopatcong. So it was a change of pace on Monday as commissioners defended the procedure leading up to Hurricane Irene and the remnants of Hurricane Lee, both of which sent the lake well into flood stage.
“This is the complete opposite,” commissioner Dan McCarthy of Hopatcong said. “Frankly, I’m not used to this.”
The commission listened to voices of praise for the state’s move to let water out ahead of Hurricane Irene, but also heard complaints from residents who thought the outflow started too late. The state increased the outflow on Thursday, August 25, in an effort to drop the lake six inches ahead of the rainfall forecast from Hurricane Irene (which arrived the following Sunday and Monday), but the dam only let through enough water to drop the lake three to four inches before the gates had to be shut, both because of the Hopatcong State Park closure and because the downstream water bodies had reached flood stage. Following that, the storm pushed the lake a foot above the 9.5-foot high-water mark at the dam, to 10.49 feet. The lake briefly dropped below the high-water mark before the remnants of Hurricane Lee filled the lake even higher, to 10.72 feet at the dam.
“I’m glad you started on Thursday [August 25], but I wish you had started on Tuesday to lower the lake,” said Sam Hoagland of Hopatcong, whose boathouse flooded in the back-to-back storms. (Hoagland presented photos of the interior and exterior of his boathouse, which are shown here, at left.)
Tim Meredith of Hopatcong said his home and boathouse suffered damage in the storm. “We all knew prior to Thursday,” Meredith said. “The media was hyping this storm…. I agree with the order, I just wish it could have been made sooner.”
Cliff Beebe of Lake Hopatcong said the state should keep the lake within its operating range, and accused the state of failing to do so. “I was lucky, I escaped by two inches,” he said. “By taking on lake level management, you’re still going to do damage.”
Kerry Kirk Pflugh, who represents the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection on the commission, said the commission made a recommendation to the state to lower the lake level, and the state moved on that when the governor declared a state of emergency. “We got the weather predictions, calculated the rainfall, and looked at the levels of the rivers,” she said. “Once you reach the flood stage downstream of the dam [you have to shut the gates]. You can’t flood the communities downstream. … You can’t go above flood stage, and you have to look at what the existing factors are.”
Lake Hopatcong Commission administrator Donna Macalle-Holly also defended the state. “Prior to Irene, they released as much water as they could,” she said. “This was a very outstanding circumstance, and it’s very difficult to manage a lake level based on a weather forecast. It’s not an easy task.”
Commission chairman and Jefferson Township mayor Russ Felter noted that the area saw an incredible amount of rainfall at the end of this summer. “In Jefferson, in three and a half weeks, we had 23 inches of rain, plus whatever had come before.”
In fact, the lake had gone above the 9.5-foot mark for a short period earlier in August, before Hurricane Irene had even arrived. As a result, the state was in a difficult circumstance with regard to water management, unlike any they had faced before. “The last storm before this was Hurricane Floyd, and we were down one and a half feet,” Felter said. “In the flood of 2000, we had no advanced notice… we got 18 inches of rain in 10 to 12 hours.”
Commissioner Mike Brunson pointed out that any move by the state to decrease the lake level was helpful. “If it hadn’t been for the lake being lowered ahead of that first storm, we would have been a lot worse off,” he said.
The discussion about high water went hand-in-hand with a discussion about the no-wake restriction, which several complained was not being properly followed or enforced. The restriction goes into effect automatically when the lake goes above the 9.5-foot mark, and is lifted once it drops below that mark again.
“I see these wake boats cause tremendous damage, especially when the water is high,” said Hoagland, who added that he’d like to see the no-wake restriction go into effect at a lower level than 9.5 feet. “Those waves just drive in and create hell in my boathouse. And then at 3 in the morning you hear them rushing down the lake. It’s going to take a death to cause some action on this lake.”
Meredith also complained about those who didn’t follow the restriction. “You don’t have to have a big boat, you just have to be going faster than 5 miles per hour,” he said. “It just creates an enormous amount of damage.”
Residents and commissioners acknowledged that the police don’t have the same resources they once did. “The bottom line is the State Police are just under an enormous amount of pressure and constraints,” Meredith said. “They’re just not monitoring the lake like they used to. The fast majority of people abide the lines, it’s the few that don’t that really cause havoc for everybody else.”
Brunson and McCarthy advised Meredith and any other residents to call the State Police when they see the laws being broken, to specifically ask for Newark Bay, and to ask them to document the call so the person on the phone has to take down all of the details. “[The police] might not be on the lake today,” Brunson said, “but they may be tomorrow because of those complaints.”
Commissioner Joel Servoss noted that people wasted no time in starting to make wakes once the lake dropped below 9.5 feet on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. “People sit out there with their smartphones,” he said. “They must have a mechanism for checking in.”
In other news:
• Felter reported that the weed harvest had concluded for the season, and the machines were being moved to Franklin, where a pre-construction meeting had just been held. By winter, he said, the majority of the commission’s equipment should be sheltered inside the new building, which is supposed to be complete within 60 days.
• Felter also said the commission has been making progress in its discussion with the state about long-term plans, and that those plans are “very positive.” He said by the October meeting, he should have an announcement, and that the commission will have to revisit its business plan and long-term goals once the new system is in place. “It’s a very unusual situation, and we’re trying to feel our way through this,” he said.
• Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro presented the latest water quality data to the commission with a mid-year report that focused on data from May to July. “The water clarity was pretty good, slightly better than we’ve seen in past years,” he said. Phosphorus, which is a primary indicator for the lake ecosystem health, was compliant at all testing locations in May, but slightly elevated at the two canal stations in June. “For the first half of the season, we didn’t see any high concentrations, but once we have July, August, and September, we’ll submit the year-end report.”
• The water-quality discussion expanded to the topic of safety at beaches. Lubnow said that most of the work Princeton Hydro does is based on the lake’s restoration plan, and that monitoring focuses on total phosphorus and total suspended solids. Beaches, he said, are required by the county to monitor things such as fecal coliform and e. coli weekly during the swimming season, so residents can check in with a nearby beach to see the status of their swimming area water.
• Commissioner BettyLou De Croce, the N.J. Department of Community Affairs representative on the commission, presented an audit for the first six months of 2011, and said the state would look back at the previous three years and then regularly audit going forward. She said the auditor “felt satisfied that everything was accounted for.”
The next meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission takes place on October 17 at the Roxbury Municipal Building in Ledgewood.