Dry winter, low water keeps commission on edge

LHC - Mar 2012 - 1Describing the weather of the last year as a "real freak show," commissioner Dan McCarthy of Hopatcong reflected the sentiment of many in attendance at Monday's Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting when he said he was, "just praying for rain."
After the effects of two hurricanes pushed the lake past the high-water mark for most of the end of the summer season, and a fall snowstorm seemed to indicate a snowy winter to come, a remarkably dry and warm winter has kept the lake water level below normal as the 2012 boating season approaches.
Although Lake Hopatcong resident Tim Clancy reminded everyone that the lake is often still covered with ice this time of year—meaning it is too early to panic—the discussions among the commissioners and members of the public showed a growing apprehension that the lake won't bounce back from its annual 26-inch drawdown.
"My concern is with the water level," said Hopatcong resident Fred Steinbaum, who pointed out that despite the lake going back into refill mode in February, it remains two feet below normal. "We've had a very dry winter and there will be no snow runoff.... The weather is warm, but the boating is unsafe."
Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection representative on the commission, said despite the drought conditions the commission does not currently have the option to let out less than the standard 7.5 million gallons of water per day because it is fish stocking season and reducing the downstream flow could cause a fish kill. Downstream, she said, conditions are equally dry, with the mild weather keeping temperatures warmer than normal, too.  "We're monitoring things, but the answer is no for now," she said. "The good news is it's March. April can be rainy, and let's hope that happens." Still, "we're breaking new ground here. Let's monitor things carefully and hope for rain."
The commission was meeting for the second time in less than a week after approving a memorandum of understanding on March 13 that shifted control of the weed harvest to the state, at least temporarily. (For recent coverage of that arrangement, click here and here.)
Commission chairman and Jefferson mayor Russ Felter briefly addressed the weed-harvest change when he was asked by Lake Hopatcong resident Cliff Beebe about the current duties of the commission.
"We're redefining ourselves," Felter said. "We still have our charge of lake quality issues, and basically we're going to do everything except the weed harvest."
He added that, if current legislation in Trenton passes and the commission receives stable funding from the state, the task of managing the weed harvest operation might be returned to the commission by next year. But for now, he said, the move "gives us a chance to do other things, such as work with the towns a little closer."
On the subject of town projects, Felter had an update on what Jefferson Township had completed with regard to dredging and sediment removal. In all, the Jefferson Department of Public Works dredged in 8 of 19 planned areas, removing a total of 783 cubic yards of sediment. The highest concentrations were on Alpine Drive and North Alpine Drive, where three locations collectively netted 343 cubic yards in total, and on Benedict Drive, where 163 cubic yards of sediment were removed.
"This was not an easy task," said commission administrator Donna Macalle-Holly, who extended her appreciation to the town for tackling the project on its own.
McCarthy asked for more information about it in hopes of presenting the idea to Hopatcong Borough as well. "I know money's tight, but I'm still going to ask," he said.
LHC - Mar 2012 - 2The removal of sediment helps improve the lake quality, and Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro was on hand to update the commission on the water-quality monitoring for 2011. He said the phosphorus concentrations came in relatively low compared to past years, and that overall conditions on the lake were good. The carryover trout habitat, he said, was in particularly good shape. The weed harvest was down, at just 1200 cubic yards, to one of the lowest amounts ever, but that was the result of limited funds.
Lubnow warned that that 2012 year was the last year for which the water quality monitoring is paid for, and suggested the commission look into ways to ensure the quality checks continue, especially in light of how well the records have been kept thus far. "It's one of the largest databases in New Jersey if not the country," he said, adding that the monitoring helps track quality, identify problem areas, and track improvements based on projects implemented. "It's very critical data," he said, "and something we should seriously look into beyond 2012."
Lubnow also reported that the biofiltration rain garden project at Hopatcong State Park was moving forward, and plans are in place to have the garden established next to the concession stand (to the left if you're looking from the water), filtering runoff from the parking lot and from the concession stand roof before it makes its way into Lake Hopatcong.
Macalle-Holly said the project has particular community resonance because it is something that could be done by homeowners around the lake. Plans are in place for an outreach program that would connect local students with project by holding a contest for those who can show how rain gardens help the watershed.
In other news:

  • Clancy reminded the public that they are welcome to attend the Knee Deep Club's fish stocking at 10 a.m. on Sunday, April 1 at Dow's Live Bait on Nolan's Point in Lake Hopatcong. "It's fun to bring family and friends," he said. The goal is to release the 1500 13-inch-and-up brown and rainbow trout ahead of the trout fishing season, which begins on April 7.

  • Commissioners and residents applauded Macalle-Holly, who will celebrate her 10th year with the Lake Hopatcong Commission on April 1. "We do appreciate all the work you do, Donna," Felter said.
The next meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission is at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 16 at the Roxbury Municipal Building in Ledgewood.

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