A collection of residents vigorously opposed a possible elimination the annual off-season lake drawdown during the Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting on Monday night, claiming such a change would damage property, increase weed growth, and send valuable fish downstream.
"I have the lakefront property owners at heart in terms of what they have to deal with," said Bill Durand of Mt. Arlington, a former commissioner who currently serves on the Water-Level Management Plan Citizens' Advisory Committee. In that role, he said he was "extremely disappointed" that the committee last week spent more than two hours discussing the possible elimination of the drawdown, which involves a 26-inch drop most years and a 5-foot drop of water level every five years (the next is scheduled for 2013).
"I certainly empathize with those who make an income on the lake," Durand said. "But how can we possibly even be discussing this?"
The possibility has come up among the advisory committee, in part because of a slower-than-usual rise in the lake level this past spring, when a record-dry winter season kept the water level down as the boating season begun.
Tim Clancy of Lake Hopatcong pointed out that, despite "an extraordinarily dry winter, the driest in history," by June 4, the lake was at full pool, reaching the dam height. He pointed to several examples just in recent years when the lake went up a significant amount in a short period of time during typical spring rainfall events. "This is such a zany, crazy idea, and I don't know where the impetus came from," Clancy said.
Kerry Kirk Pflugh, who represents the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection on the commission and who coordinates the Citizens' Advisory Committee, said no decisions had been made, and any efforts to research the possibility of eliminating or changing the drawdown were only in response to an inquiry. "A question was asked, and we're just trying to gather data," she said. She assured those in attendance that the state would look at the various issues at hand, including property damage risks.
A study that looked into the effect of the water-management efforts during the spring found that all of the small adjustments, which were made by following the new plan, only accounted for one inch of additional water height. "The take-home message is, it's rain that fills this lake," she said, not small water-management adjustments. As such, she said, it was worth looking into what risks the lake is willing to take with the drawdown, since dam controls have such little impact. "I've very sensitive to the issues," she said. I've asked a lot of people to go out and do homework."
Commission chairman Russ Felter seconded the idea that no changes were made, and any change to the plan would still take place after significant public input. "I can tell you that a bunch of people up here [on the commission] are concerned about what's going on," he said. "It's definitely not a done deal. I can guarantee it's not."
Still, several homeowners took the opportunity to voice their concerns on Monday. "I think it would be a great harm to this lake," said Sam Hoagland of Hopatcong, who added that there are a lot of lakefront residents who can "just afford to live on the lake," but who couldn't afford a coffer dam in order to do lakefront property repairs, instead depending on the drawdown to expose seawalls, pilings, and other dock infrastructure for repair. "I would prefer too see it the way it is."
Jeanette Vreeland of Hopatcong said the weeds tend to diminish after a drawdown, and said she depends on the drawdown to do repairs to her retaining wall. "I do appreciate the seasonal lowering of the lake," she said.
And Richard Pedati of Landing asked that those who research the idea look into the possible effect on homeowners' whose houses were built nearly a century ago, like his. He said the footings of his home are in the water table, meaning eliminating the drawdown could cause the ground around his foundation to heave. "I don't think anybody thinks of that when they think about lowering the lake," he said -- a point that was quickly acknowledged as an important one by the commissioners.
Commissioner Dan McCarthy said he thought the spring of 2012 was a "one-year blip" that shouldn't determine long-term plans. "I don't think we should make any decisions based on one year of data," he said. "I don't like when the lake is low, but I have a dock to maintain, and I can't afford a coffer dam."
Ray Fernandez of Lake Hopatcong, who owns Bridge Marina and sits on the Citizens' Advisory Committee, said he understands those concerns, but pointed out that he and other lakefront owners aren't the only ones who benefit from the lake. "Lake Hopatcong is here for a lot of people, not just the lakefront property owners to do [repairs]," he said. "We need to look at how it's going to affect everybody in the state who uses the lake."
Cliff Beebe, who owns Beebe Marina in Lake Hopatcong, also echoed a familiar refrain of his: that the state needs to first determine who owns the lake before it can make any changes to the water level whatsoever.
The commissioners plan to revisit the issue at the next meeting on October 15, after which the N.J. DEP Division of Parks and Forestry will make a recommendation on whether or not to change the Water-Level Management Plan.
Later in the meeting, Durand told commissioners that many people start planning for the 60-inch five-year drawdown immediately after the previous one, when they can survey their property. "You cannot consider taking away a five-year drawdown that we are on the eve of," he said. "You will have to give people a five-year alert."
The next 60-inch drawdown is scheduled to take place in the fall of 2013, and Felter asked that the commissioners begin to plan for it, looking into ways to secure Dumpsters, organize lakefront cleanup efforts, and get other plans moving forward so things are ready to go when the time comes.
In other news:
- Steve Ellis updated the commission on the weed harvest, reporting that the operation had removed 1,893 cubic yards from the lake, up from a total of 1,100 last year. The harvest is scheduled to continue through Sept. 24. He said the workers "have been doing a phenomenal job," and added that he had just received word that the harvest would be adequately funded by the state for 2013. Felter thanked Ellis for the hard work he had put in over the summer season.
- Winfred Ginter of Hopatcong asked that the commission look into ways to curb the large number of boaters who raft up in Byram Bay every weekend in the summer. Donna Macalle-Holly, the commission administrator, said that those who anchor aren't breaking any laws, and a commission effort a few years earlier to create new regulations regarding such anchoring were rejected by the Boating Regulation Committee. Unless boaters pose a safety hazard or residents complain of noise or harassment, the State Police aren't in a position to do anything about it. Commissioners said they could look into making another request.
- Clancy once again asked commissioners to do all they could to secure some funding to keep Macalle-Holly on as administrator of the commission, saying that if the state wouldn't pay the cost of the commission, the towns and counties should take the responsibility. Felter said that Jefferson Township could find some money in its budget, most likely, but that he couldn't speak for all of the towns. He also said that there were promising conversations with the state in the last week regarding funding for the commission. For now, however, the commission is not expected to be funded beyond the end of the year. (The weed harvest is now funded through the State Park.) "Nobody's more frustrated than I am," Felter said.
- Commissioner Mark Fisch pointed out that additional State Police patrols had been out during evening hours Labor Day weekend, something he hadn't seen in years. McCarthy, who said the police "seem to not be out there at the critical times" said he was encouraged to hear that.
- Macalle-Holly updated the commission on water-quality grants, and mentioned that two projects -- the State Park Rain Garden and a King Road storm water project -- came in under budget, so the commission will have leftover grant funding to pay for water quality monitoring for one more year, through 2013.
- Kirk-Pflugh announced that the invasive water chestnut species was discovered in Greenwood Lake in a well-established colony. "I say this to remind all of you to be vigilant," she said.
The next meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Oct. 15 at the Mt. Arlington Municipal Building.