At the end of a particularly contentious public hearing about the Lake Hopatcong draft water-level management plan, Lake Hopatcong Commission chairman Russ Felter pointed out that a 1922 ruling that set up a controversial number was likely decided over a handshake agreement.
“What’s important about that is those folks back then were able to put aside their differences and work for a common cause,” Felter said. “And I sat here tonight and listened to everybody throw rocks… we need to work together. We have to do that. It may not be what some people want to hear, but we have to make it work.”
The number Felter spoke of—a regular flow of 12 cubic feet per second from the Lake Hopatcong dam, established in 1922—was at the crux of debate on Monday night at a special meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission. The meeting, held at the Roxbury Municipal Building, was an opportunity for the public to ask questions and voice concerns about the water-level management plan, which was retooled by the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection with the help of other state agencies and a Citizens’ Advisory Committee (made up of stakeholders from the lake and the downstream watershed) in response to low-water issues at the start of the 2009 summer season.
The committee met regularly for a year to craft the newest version of the plan. When the draft was released in December, residents of Lake Hopatcong and downstream expressed opposing concerns, with Lake Hopatcong residents arguing that the 12 cfs release minimum might be too high to maintain a safe and healthy lake, and the Musconetcong Watershed stakeholders arguing against a provision that allows for the possibility of reducing the outflow to less than 12 cfs in low-water conditions, which they said could hurt the downstream environment.
“The insertion of this paragraph without a set of pass-fail criteria leaves this to an uncertain future and for us downstream a dangerous foot in the door,” said Beth Styler Barry, executive director of the Musconetcong Watershed Association, who added that she had resolutions from 18 watershed municipalities as well as a variety of other groups that support her position.
Esther Poulsen of Lake Hopatcong disagreed with the suggestion that the 12 cfs flow would need to be maintained through all weather conditions. “If the lake did not exist and there was a drought or change in water levels, the lower tributaries and Lake Musconetcong would be losing water anyway,” she said. “So it sounds like we’re being asked to create an artificially high level of water, regardless of the ecological conditions going on elsewhere.” Before the floor was open to public comment, Larry Baier of the DEP—who previously sat on the Lake Hopatcong Commission—presented a summary of the plan, and the process of crafting it, including how they arrived at the decision to confirm the 12 cfs number established decades earlier.
Baier pointed out that two conflicting mandates need to be resolved: the 1922 court order that required the 12 cfs release for the Musconetcong Millers Association, and a state law that says, “Lake Hopatcong shall be used as an aquatic park and the lake level shall be maintained at the normal high water, natural elements permitting.”
“We obviously can’t meet both mandates,” he said.
Baier explained how they arrived at keeping the 12 cfs number in place. Estimating that the rainfall provides about 4 inches of water to the lake per month, with another 4 inches of runoff water making its way to Lake Hopatcong, Baier balanced that with the 4.5 inches of water that likely evaporates over a summer month. In the end, the 3.6 inches of level lost over a month from the 12 cfrs release was “just about in balance,” he said.
But the plan as it stood, he said, needed to be revisited in light of low-water issues in recent years. So changes were made; for example, when 12 cfs are passing over the top of the dam, the dam would be closed, as long as the lake level was below 9.5 feet. Another change is the controversial provision that would allow the DEP to potentially reduce the outflow not only in drought conditions, as it has done in the past, but also if the lake level at the dam is 8 feet, or one foot below the dam level.
Other changes were made to the drawdown schedule, to extend the boating season on the lake and protect lake structures. The annual drawdown would remain at 26 inches and still be complete by December 15, but would begin at or about November 19 instead of November 1. (The state tried that approach this year, and because of rainfall on Dec. 1 and limitations on how much can be released without risking downstream structures, the drawdown was a day late, Baier said.) Because of the later start, the rate of release will increase from .75 inches per day to 1 inch per day. In addition, the refill would not begin until all of the ice melted. (The existing plan includes a date of March 15, which was removed in the draft plan.)
The five-year drawdown would remain at 5 feet, but instead of beginning the day after Labor Day, would begin around September 22. Instead of a 1 inch per day release, it would be increased to 1.5 inches per day, and be complete by November 1. The refill would still begin on December 15, but instead of refilling to a vague “between 12 and 48 inches,” as existing plan states, the new plan would require the state to refill as much as possible to reach 26 inches before any ice is established.
Baier said a few other scenarios need to be discussed in one final committee meeting before the plan is presented to DEP commissioner Robert Martin, and that he would hope to receive an approval from the Lake Hopatcong Commission before moving forward. The plan would also be reviewed annually by the committee.
Commissioners on Monday night expressed concerns about how the public would be notified of changes in outflow (Baier said he would notify the commission and Lake Musconetcong Regional Planning Board, and that residents can see the gauge measurements on the U.S. Geological Survey website), and how fast the reaction time would be when it came to making changes in the outflow (Baier said the state would be able to anticipate the possibility of reducing outflow if and when drought conditions set in).
More than two dozen speakers then came to the podium to share their thoughts about the plan, most of them critical. The residents who spoke were about evenly split between Lake Hopatcong and Musconetcong Watershed stakeholders, with a few expressing other concerns. Les Aughey, president of the Knee Deep Club, was one of the only voices of contentment.
“People wanted a definite water-level management plan, and here we are, a year in the making, and we finally have one,” Aughey said. “There were many groups around the lake involved in putting it together, we have read it, and believe it to be a good plan…. Let’s get past this issue, and concern ourselves with more important issues at hand.”
The majority of the speakers, however, were less comfortable with the plan, though there was almost universal appreciation for the time taken to craft what, many agreed, was still an improvement upon the status quo. Nonetheless, residents’ concerns with the draft plan compelled many to speak out.
“The water-level management plan is silent regarding water quality,” said Lake Hopatcong Alliance president Ray Fernandez, who added that it was “irresponsible to ignore” the burden to the Lake Hopatcong environment that could come with low water levels.
Steve Levinson, of Lake Hopatcong, agreed, saying that water quality indicators such as dissolved oxygen are affected by the lake level. “These environmental issues, from my perspective, have not been taken into account,” he said.
In response to those concerns, Donna Macalle-Holly, administrator of the Lake Hopatcong Commission, described about $2 million worth of water-quality projects the commission was completing through grants. Tim Clancy of Lake Hopatcong said that those concerns are balanced by the fact that regular replacement of the water—via inflow and outflow—is important for the lake environment, too. And Baier added that phosphorus levels, which rise when fertilizer and other runoff reaches the lake, tend to be uniform throughout the body of water, so the lake level wouldn’t have an effect on it.
Sandy Powers of Bright’s Cove in Lake Hopatcong said that low water levels “affect us severely. When the water goes down too far, we no longer have access to the lake.”
Mitch Shariff, who lives in the canals in the Woodport section of the lake, shared a similar concern. “I think it’s the most delicate area on the lake,” he said, “and when the water level is taken away from us, we’re probably hit the hardest.”
The safety of low water levels was also discussed. Laurence Orlans, who teaches boating safety through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, said he was concerned about boating accidents during times of less water depth. And Bob Place of Lake Hopatcong said that, as a member of the Jefferson Township Fire Department, he was concerned about the ability to draw water from the lake in shallow areas that don’t have hydrants. “That’s a really important factor to consider.”
John Kurzman, of Lake Hopatcong, said he found flaws with the data in the plan, and argued that the 12 cfs had never actually been a minimum outflow because, historically, 20 percent of the time the dam had released less than 12 cfs.
Lisa Kurzman said that more water should be conserved during the wet spring season. “I believe the plan does not conserve water at the right time,” she said.
The downstream residents and water enthusiasts also came out in full force.
“There’s a lot of us downstream, and we care about the lake, too,” said August Goodmanson of Hackettstown. “We want a healthy lake, but we’re not willing to give up the river to save boating interests…. You need to give consideration to those of us downstream and the health of the entire ecosystem.”
Nancy Waller said she thought the plan was not grounded in enough science to ensure the protection of downstream resources. “To me, it sounds as if the DEP is unwilling to find the resources to determine the effects of low-flow [downstream] here,” she said.
Bill Levins of Long Valley said he hoped the paragraph that allows for the reduced flow would be tabled until further study could be complete. “I’m troubled that this debate has devolved into us versus them,” he said. “Let’s find solutions that address concerns for the lake and downstream communities.”
From the start of the meeting, Baier said he hoped that the current draft was that solution, but assured those in attendance that he would synthesize the input and take residents’ concerns into account during a final committee meeting. Felter asked commissioners to review their notes and come to the next Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting, scheduled for February 22, with their final comments on the draft. The commission will then vote on whether or not to endorse the plan before it goes to the DEP head for final approval.
To download a PDF of the draft plan, click here.