How bad of a disaster does Lake Hopatcong have to have? The lake is now more than 1 foot below top of dam, 1.5 feet below ‘no wake’ (top target level), and has fallen that 1 foot over just the last 60 days. More than half of those 12 inches, 7 of those inches, are simply BECAUSE the DEP lets out 12 cubic feet per second, which is 7.5 million gallons per day, and which is 3.5 inches per month (with each inch of the lake holding 66 million gallons). Taking 3.5 inches out of the lake through the dam gates each month is killing lake Hopatcong. There will soon be boats stranded all over the lake, some already stuck on lifts, but most may be blocked from leaving (or entering) from many boat ramps in not too long of a time if there is not immediate change, and there is also obvious need for a DEP policy change as well.
Currently, in the last week, according to USGS, the lake went down .1 feet (1.2 inches), while there was also .4 inches of rain. At even the rate of 1.6 inches lost per week (if no rain), most ramps will soon be unusable, and some already need special navigation. Yet almost one inch is let out of the lake each week by the DEP, due to this new following of an old 12cfs outflow rule. If we had the 7 inches of water level back from the DEP outflow for the last 8 weeks, for instance, we’d be in much better shape, or even better, the outflow should be reduced earlier in the summer seasons, saving even more water for the late summer dry times.
To put the magnitude of 7.5 million gallons per day (225 million gallons per 30 day month) being released from Lake Hopatcong in perspective, that is MORE water than is provided by the entire Morris County Municipal Utilities Authority (Denville, Jefferson, Mine Hill, Mt. Arlington, NJ American Water Company, Parsippany Troy Hills Township, Randolph Township, Roxbury Township, Wharton Boro, and the Southeast Morris County MUA), which provide up to 218 million gallons per month (http://www.mcmua.com/water/watersystem.htm).
The DEP (and common sense) wants us to conserve water, but then leaves the faucet it controls at Lake Hopatcong open, releasing 7.5 million gallons per day towards the ocean at all times, whether downstream needs it or not. There is even a drought watch in effect right now, with citizens being asked to conserve water. Rather than allowing Lake Hopatcong to ‘conserve’ water during the wetter times, so that it is not already too low by the time downstream really needs it, the current one-outflow-fits-all-conditions requirement of 12cfs goes against what environmental conservation is about. Another way to look at it is that Lake Hopatcong SAVES its water. So when there is a dry time, like the DEP has done multiple press releases about this summer, we'd still have plenty of water, and actually could release downstream when its really needed. But instead, the state forced 3.5 inches of level out of the lake every month, whether its needed downstream or not, and then blames someone else (mother nature) for the low level, and has Lake Hopatcong already too low, by the time water might really be needed downstream. DEP’s top priority for Lake Hopatcong’s water level seems to be to have it be a savings bank of water for the DEP to withdraw from the lake every day, regardless of the balance, and whether needed downstream or not . This is contrary to normal conservation efforts.
The main justification currently used by the DEP for releasing 12cfs from Lake Hopatcong is the area immediately past the dam, an area with limited public access. This is one of the feeds to Lake Musconetcong and then the Musconetcong River and ultimately dumped into the ocean. Lake Musconetcong is overflowing its dam, while Lake Hopatcong is a foot and a half down. The problem is not even about the largest requirement downstream with a permit, theMusconetcong Sewerage Authority. The MSA only needs 6cfs passing flows, and it has way more. The DEP indicates the problem is the area immediately below the Lake Hopatcong dam, which Fish & Wildlife then stocks with fish, and decries that the water must therefore flow constantly out of Lake Hopatcong to keep those fish alive or from moving downstream to Lake Musconetcong as they do each winter anyway (area is not designated ‘holdover’ meaning its fish don’t survive over the winters anyway).
The area the DEP is trying ‘to protect’ immediately below the dam is an area that would be ‘naturally’ dry much of the year if there was no dam at all, since the lake area would only ‘overflow’ when water was above a certain height. Its as if one day someone accidentally filled the parking lot at the DEP building with water, but then Fish & Wildlife put in fish, and then required the DEP keep the parking lot filled with water at all times, because it has fish, and then put more fish in it each year, because after all it could be a good environment for the fish, and you must keep the water flowing, because after all, there are fish in it (circular logic). The DEP Is willing to pour water out of lake Hopatcong, regardless of its level, making the area below the dam have 12cfs as the higher priority than all those who enjoy or depend upon the lake, in some sort of tail wagging the dog fashion.
This is also not common sense, science, or compliance with the laws regarding Lake Hopatcong. The law is in place to protect Lake Hopatcong against this kind of raid, where NJ Statute NJSA 13:12-5 says “The waters of Lake Hopatcong may be used as an aquatic public park, for boating, bathing, fishing and winter sports, and the lake level shall be maintained for such purposes at the normal high water mark as established on March eleven, one thousand nine hundred and twenty-two, natural elements permitting.” The DEP has chosen to set priorities in conflict with that key law, or to now (since to 2005) to start following a conflicting management plan.
The problem is a major philosophical issue: From 1956 to 1975, there was only 1 year (1972) where they actually let out at least 12cfs minimum at all times. (http://waterdata.usgs.gov/nj/nwis/dv?cb_00060=on&format=rdb&begin_date=1928-07-01&end_date=2010-09-11&site_no=01455500&referred_module=sw ). From 1976 to March 2002 outflow was not recorded or not available from USGS. For 2002, 2003, and 2004, there were consistent times where outflow was sensibly restricted below 12cfs (much less than 3.5 inches out of the lake per month). In other words, history shows that 12cfs is NOT THE NORM, and without downstream fishkill incident (that the DEP is now concerned with), there had been years of even 0cfs outflow at times (ie. wet springs), and many summers released only 5-6cfs. Only in 2005, there was some sort of philosophical change, and in 2005-2008, was the lake forced to outflow 12cfs, and those were indeed problematic years, but nobody had realized why at first.
By the first major drawdown since the consistently recorded 12cfs DEP outflow, 2009, we saw enormous problems (as I discovered and publicized last year being caused by an extra 20 inch release caused by about 1.3 billion gallons of extra release by DEP during the winter). Yet even then, to recover that summer, the area below Lake Hopatcong was only fed about 5-6cfs by Lake Hopatcong (thank you DEP). With measurement and careful analysis by the DEP downstream, 5-6cfs was safely maintained. The DEP made it clear that if they saw fish under duress, they would open the Lake’s dams more, but they didn’t have to. Yet this year, the DEP refused to restrict or monitor, and missed months of time earlier this summer that they could have easily restricted outflow.
Now the DEP is suggesting that the Lake Hopatcong commission prove that less than 12cfs is OK, even though it has long been proven. Really the DEP should have the burden of proof at this point to show why this new practice of 12cfs is now needed every day, if we even believe that the stocked fish at the mouth of our dam (not having to move downstream as they will in the winter anyway) is really more important than the lake itself.
I believe this year’s horrible levels will be typical for Lake Hopatcong, if there is not change back to the prior to 2005 handling. Using data from the State Climatologist at http://climate.rutgers.edu/stateclim_v1/data/north_njhistprecip.html , during the last 60 days, there were 5.2 inches of rain, which is not exceptionally low, and July & August totaled 6.79 inches of rain, versus a mean of 9.02, only 2.23 inches shy of mean.
But more significantly, using the climatologist data, 34 of the last 110 years July/August had LESS rainfall in Northern New Jersey, meaning 30% of the years would be as bad as this year, or worse. (with similar statistics, almost one of every 3 years in the future will be this bad or worse if the DEP will not revert to the older actual treatment of the outflows!) And we would need even more rainfall to be ‘acceptable’, considering that we are a > 1.5 feet down from no-wake at this point, and falling quickly. This also helps show, because we did not have this issue every summer, especially prior to 2005, that 12cfs out of lake Hopatcong can be exceptionally damaging, and was not the norm.
Are we really hoping for the photo op of boats stuck in mud at Lake Hopatcong? Should that be the picture on the stickers the DEP wants sold for all people who boat on Lake Hopatcong? (The State should use boating license fees (not to be confused with the safety certificate), to fund Lake Hopatcong since Boating Licenses are ONLY required for boating on nontidal waters such as NJ lakes, Hopatcong being the largest in the state). Where are the DEP’s priorities? Governor Christie talked about the ‘new’ DEP having a focus that considers multiple interests including economic, and also of removing Fish & Wildlife from the DEP. Is shutting down lake Hopatcong by always leaving the faucet open, with the continuous removal of almost an inch a week by the DEP, wet times or dry, really part of that plan?
Why must the DEP continue this failed experiment of transforming Lake Hopatcong from having its level protected by law, into being treated like a never-ending supply, like a bank account with an infinite balance? Why must the DEP refuse to have even attempted the restricted outflows, or not allow Lake Hopatcong’s own level and conditions downstream to be considered when adjusting outflows, as was obviously done for so many years before? Can’t Lake Hopatcong and all the users and economy around the lake be considered as much as the fish in a short stream that only exists because of the outflows from the dam?
Senators Bucco and Oroho, Jefferson Mayor and Lake Hopatcong Chairman Russ Felter, as well as the rest of the Lake Hopatcong Commission seem to recognize the severity of this situation and are trying to help, both for short term change and for long term policy. I have to believe that some within the DEP recognize this also, but this situation obviously needs more concern from the public as well, so people from all over the state should reach out to the DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, your Mayors or Town Council’s, Senators, and Assemblyman, and let them know how you feel about this situation!
John Kurzman is a resident of Lake Hopatcong.