In a last-minute move that will allow the weed harvest to continue for the rest of the summer—and possibly for future summer seasons—the state will pay the salaries of the Lake Hopatcong Commission employees. The move was announced at Monday night's commission meeting at the Jefferson Township Municipal Building all-purpose room, which was standing-room only.
“This is good news for all of us,” commission chairman and Jefferson mayor Russ Felter said. “We’re starting to move ahead.”
The solution, Felter said, came about during a meeting with state Sens. Anthony R. Bucco and Steven V. Oroho, Assemblymen Jay Webber and Anthony M. Bucco, N.J. Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Bob Martin, N.J. DEP deputy chief of staff Dave Glass, and state treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff last Tuesday. “It was obvious that discussions had gone on before we walked into that room,” he said. “They understand the importance of this lake to the environment and the economy of the state, and they made that clear. They’re not abandoning us.”
With the new system in place as of August 1, the commission won’t have to remove the three harvesters from the water this week, as originally planned, and the harvest of Eurasian milfoil, tapegrass, and other aquatic weeds will continue through the end of September. Since the harvest began on July 11, administrator Donna Macalle-Holly reported, the harvesters have removed 168 tons of biomass from the lake.
The harvest so far had been planned around getting the worst parts done as quickly as possible, a point that was emphasized by weed harvester Barry Marke after the meeting. “Now we can set a program for the summer,” Marke said. “Now we can help more people and reset a program to get the full lake.”
Marke said it was a relief to hear the news, but that he’s still cautious in his optimism. “In this job, seeing is believing,” he said. “But that was something optimistic, which we haven’t heard in a long time.”
In past years, the state has provided funding for the commission, which then paid salaries to administrator Donna Macalle-Holly, harvester foreman Michael Calderio, and other employees, including seasonal weed-harvest operators. Even this year, the goal of providing funding for the weed harvest operation was hoped to be met with a $600,000 allocation in the state budget—a line that was taken out of the final budget.
The solution shared on Monday would not involve direct money from the state to the commission; rather, the state will make those commission workers state employees, and pay their salaries as State Park DEP employees. Felter said that the meeting also generated some commitments for next year, but nothing that could be confirmed yet. The DEP will also continue to fund commission activities, such as stormwater basin installations and regular water-quality checks, through environmental grants.
Felter thanked those who attended the meeting to come up with this plan, the commission staff, Tim Clancy and the Knee Deep Club for coming up with a fallback fundraising plan if necessary, and the Lake Hopatcong Alliance for their plan to hold a boating festival to raise money for the cause. “What was obvious in this meeting is that this commission needs to work with those groups; the alliance, the Knee Deep Club, other groups around the lake, plus the towns, to be a model that we can help take care of this lake,” Felter said. “We need to do that all together and move in the right direction. I think this meeting was a great start… definitely some good news for the future.”
He also thanked his fellow commissioners for the moves they approved leading up to Monday’s announcement, including allocating $32,000 of waning commission funds to get the harvesters ready to go for the season and in the water for at least a week or two of harvesting. “You know, we took a chance funding the harvesting, getting the weed harvesters ready,” Felter said. “If we hadn’t, there would be no harvesting this year.”
In other news:
- Roxbury commissioner Richard Zoschak said the Roxbury Department of Public Works building is available to be used for the weed harvesters during the off season. Calderio will be taking a look at the space in the coming weeks.
- Jefferson resident Dennis DiFrisco suggested that the commission look into partnering up with local colleges, such as Rutgers University, and even Sussex County Vocational-Technical High School to accomplish some of its tasks. “It might be something to explore down the road,” he said. “It’s a source of manpower, a source of funds, and it’s good for the lake.”
- The state agreed to complete the yearly audit of the commission, which will be ready for the next meeting.
- Fred Steinbaum of Hopatcong reiterated his request that the lake municipalities revive a program that allowed residents to dispose of debris picked up from the lake. After the rapid refill that tore up docks and loaded much of the shoreline with debris in the winter of 2010, the lakeside communities had such a program in place. Macalle-Holly said it was an economic issue. “The need didn’t warrant the cost,” she said. Steinbaum said he disagreed, and described a large amount of debris he pulled from the water this spring. “I’m not overstating the need,” he said. “We should have a plan in place for next year.”
- Lake Hopatcong resident Cliff Beebe once again asked the commission to fight on behalf of the lakeside homeowners by trying to stop the state from adjusting the water level on the lake, and showed photos of the Lake Hopatcong dam letting water out while the downstream water bodies flowing. “This is illegal,” he said. “[The state is] not above the letter of the law.”
- John Kurzman of Lake Hopatcong said he was happy to hear the news of the funding, but disappointed that the regular budget item for the commission was unfunded while Barnegat Bay received ample state funds. (Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the DEP representative on the commission, said much of the Barnegat funds were in the form of loans and grants for infrastructure projects.) “Everyone should be commended,” Kurzman said, “but I do feel you’ve avoided being thrown from the frying pan and into the fire. You’re still in the frying pan.” He pointed to state fishing licenses (which aren’t required for those who fish in saltwater) as examples of money that local boaters and anglers are paying to the state that isn’t coming back to protect the lake. “All of this money should go back to the lake,” he said. “I think you did a great job, but I just don’t think we’re being treated fairly…. They’ve been tightening the spigot every year.”
- The commission created a subcommittee to focus on dealings with the state. That committee will include Felter and commissioners Dan McCarthy, Richard Zoschak, Joel Servoss, and Kerry Kirk Pflugh.
- Tim Clancy of the Knee Deep Club reported to the commission that the Water Scout effort was completed, and not a single one of the 42 teams found any trace of the water chestnut species. (For more information about that effort, click here.)
- Clancy also thanked specific donors to the impromptu fundraising effort the Knee Deep Club had made in recent weeks to keep the harvest going if the last-minute state funding hadn’t arrived. Those who donated included Lake’s End Marina, Barnes Bros. Marina, Dow’s Live Bait, Lakeview Marina, Flash Marina, and Katz’s Marina, as well as significant private donations from Bela and Alice Szigethy (full disclosure: Szigethy owns Camp Six, Inc., of which Lake Hopatcong News & Reviews is a part), and Seth and Renee Katz. Their checks were ultimately returned when the Knee Deep Club learned of the new arrangement in place, but Clancy said it was a good sign to see the people of the lake come together to solve a problem locally.