Monday, July 18, 2016, 7 p.m.
Hopatcong Senior Center, Hopatcong
About 40 people were in attendance for the meeting, which touched on two of the major issues on Lake Hopatcong – water level and weed growth – in addition to other items. A summary of the key items here:
- Dan McCarthy opened the meeting by pointing to three empty chairs labeled with each of the seats that have yet to be filled by officials in Trenton, including the gubernatorial chairman appointment, another gubernatorial appointment, and the Division of Community Affairs seat. Later in the meeting, McCarthy said, “I would submit it’s not only a question of funding, it’s a question of filling the seats. That’s important… it’s a level of commitment the state needs to show.” The commissioners thanked McCarthy for writing letters to the state regarding those seats, as well as a request for legal counsel from the Attorney General’s office.
- To clarify for those who were attending their first Lake Hopatcong Commission meeting, McCarthy took the opportunity to explain to those in attendance the role the commission plays. “We are a group of 11 volunteers to serve on this commission without pay,” he said. “We come from the various constituencies, and are supposed to be a collection of entities that cover LH. … We are just advisory, we have no statutory power to do anything, we do not have keys to the gate, that’s controlled pursuant to the water level management plan. We are supposed to be the stewards of Lake Hopatcong; but presently we are not funded.”
- During commissioner comments, Commissioner Rich Zoschak mentioned that he visited the Lake Musconetcong Community Association and was surprised to see that they have a bigger budget than the LHC at $15,000. He also asked Hopatcong State Park Superintendent Melissa Castellon why the State Park was closed to visitors at times, and she said it would close when at capacity, when there aren’t enough lifeguards (as had been the case in June), and when water testing shows high bacteria levels in the swimming area (which she said happened a couple of times right after rainstorms because of runoff). Commissioner Fred Steinbaum thanked Colleen Conover,an environmental scientist and who is volunteering her time to transcribe the LHC minutes. Steinbaum also noted that the lake level is 6 inches below the top of the dam. Commissioner Anne Pravs noted that the Lake Hopatcong Foundation petition regarding properly funding the management of Lake Hopatcong had generated more than 30,000 letters to officials and legislators in Trenton. She mentioned that Sen. Anthony R. Bucco had submitted a resolution for $500,000 to fund the weed harvest, but Bucco’s chief of staff Amy Overman, who was in attendance at the meeting, said that it did not make it through the budget process. Overman added that she would bring back the comments she heard at the meeting to Bucco.
- Kerry Kirk Pflugh, the DEP representative on the commission, gave an update on changes that the DEP is proposing for the Lake Hopatcong Water Level Management Plan. “As you know, over the last couple of years, the issue of the lake reaching full pool has been a concern for all of us,” Pflugh said. “This is largely due to the fact that weather patterns have changed.” She pointed out that the lake has not reached full pool for two years and that in the past when refill was an issue, the state changed the drawdown level. The DEP is proposing to do the same, she said. Specifically, the Water Level Management Plan would be changed to have a 22-inch annual drawdown, four inches higher than the 26-inch annual drawdown, this winter. “It’s really important for everyone to understand that drawdowns occur for one reason only: to protect property owners from ice damage to their docks and bulkheads,” she said, not for environmental issues. “We have two competing critically important concerns for lakefront property owners.” She showed statistics on when the lake has reached full pool in the past (June 1, 2011; June 4, 2012; May 23, 2013, and April 26, 2014, but not in the last two years); the target date, she said, is June 1. She also explained that March is the key month to help with refill, and explained the other change to the plan: that the outflow at the Lake Hopatcong dam, which is currently kept at a minimum 12 cubic feet per second almost always, would be reduced to 8 cubic feet per second from ice out until April 30, as long as the downstream conditions would allow it. This replaces wording that only allows a reduction if, among other things, the rainfall in the area has been below 7 inches over the last 90 days. “It’s more logical and we don’t have to go through the motions of an analysis that we know we’re going to be saying no to,” she said, citing the fact that even with low rainfall, other conditions downstream often don’t allow the reduction to take place. With the two changes, she said, “We feel this will result in 4 to 6 inches of increase in level, depending on the rainfall.” The next steps, she said include speaking to the mayors and to the LHC, sending certified letters to all lakefront homeowners, and holding a public hearing on the changes on September 19, at a location to be determined in Jefferson. Written comment can also be submitted. Lisa Barno of the DEP asked that in all written comments, any concerns should be written very specifically. “Some concerns might be able to be addressed, but it’s really important that we understand exactly what your concerns are.” (The five-year 60-inch drawdown, she said, would be discussed in another separate conversation.)
Steinbaum commended Pflugh and the DEP for showing flexibility. “This is, at four inches [reduction in drawdown], to me a first step and hopefully the beginning of what we may be able to do in the future. Steinbaum also submitted a proposal that he worked on with former Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board chairman Cliff Lundin to make things simpler and to clarify the chain of command. Lundin explained the proposal to the group, and described the evolution of the plan from what was initially intended to what it is today. Specifically, he discussed the lag time between when it’s appropriate to start the spring refill and when it actually begins, citing that this year it took nearly a week for the dam to be closed after conditions would allow it. Steinbaum and Lundin’s proposal aims to keep the chain of command and decision within the Lake Hopatcong community. “What we’re trying to do with this proposal is keep the decision local,” he said. “This is just tinkering, it’s a few words here and there, it’s trying to keep the decision local and with people who understand the lake.” The commissioners said that they liked the proposal and approved a resolution that would submit it to the state for consideration during the discussion on the changes to the plan. “I support the concept… of avoiding running up the chain of command and then running down the chain of command during critical [refill] days,” he said.
The public had an opportunity to speak about the proposed changes, and more than a dozen people made comments. Representatives from the Musconetcong Watershed Association voiced their favor for the change in drawdown level, but their concern for the outflow change, and wanted to be assured that conditions downstream would be regularly monitored through April 30 and that the outflow level would be immediately adjusted if necessary. Joe Buongiorno of Hopatcong asked if they had considered the effect that sewer installation had on the refill of the aquifer. Robin DeLorenzo of Hopatcong said, “Whatever you’re doing is not working. That’s just the bottom line.” Warren Gallagher said he liked to see the compromise, but asked if they would consider extending the time that 8 cfs be released. Angela Scardigno of Hopatcong thanked Pflugh for responding to the water-level issues and said, “We need someone to represent us, truly.” Brian DeVries of Hopatcong said that the constant outflow was the problem and asked about the trout downstream, to which Pflugh clarified that “this is not about trout,” rather it’s about the Clean Water Act and surface water quality standards. Trout, she said, are used as an indicator species to show the health of the river, and the efforts to maintain the flow are related to the water quality, not to protecting any particular fish population. “Our job is to do whatever we can do to keep that surface water quality standard met,” she said. “The trout just happen to be an indicator species that tells us that we have met those standards.” Jean Burke-Ujvary of Hopatcong asked why the dams were removed downstream; Barno said that the impounded water behind the dams gets very warm, so the dam removal improves water quality and allows for the free movement of biota up and down the river.
- Castellon gave an update on the weed harvest, and said that the State Park has had some personnel setbacks that have reduced the amount of time the harvesters have been on the water. “We’re trying as best we can,” she said. “I’ve been receiving phone calls from local residents. I understand that it’s really bad out there; I’ve seen it, I get it.” She said they’re trying to keep things open to make areas passable, and are currently working on Sunrise Bay and the north side of Woodport, and hoped to soon get to Halsey Island, Henderson Bay, Henderson Cove, and Castle Rock Park. “We’re going to try to stay out there as long as we can, contingent on funding.” She said the effects of the bare-bones operation last summer is resulting in more weeds this year, and the weather hasn’t helped. “I promise you I’m going to work at this,” she said, adding that if the harvesters are in a particular area and they get a call from a concerned resident who is nearby, they will try to re have the harvester respond. She said to call the State Park with any concerns or questions at 973-398-1555.
Commissioner Joel Servoss pointed out that his entire cove uses chemical treatment. “That’s counterproductive” because the dead weeds feed the next generation of weed growth, he said. “But when you don’t cut the weeds you have people dumping chemicals into the lake to deal with the problem.” Pravs said, “You can’t spend $150,000 when you’re used to spending $500,000; that’s the real reason the lake is failing, we don’t have money.” McCarthy said that the local legislators are doing their part, but that it was going to take people from outside the watershed to help get things changed in Trenton.
- The commission discussed crafting a budget. Commissioner Mark Crowley said he was in favor of putting together a basic budget that would allow the commission to have its administrative needs covered, but “I’m not for having the commission go into the business of weed harvesting.” Rather, he said, he was interested in getting more money to the current harvest operation.
- McCarthy said the State Police should be sending annual reports to the commission, which he will request.
- During public comment Gallagher said he had heard a rumor that there was a new species of trout that would be introduced downstream that would require more outflow from the lake; Barno said that it was “an interesting rumor” but that no such plans existed. Hopatcong resident Barbara Loring said that the weeds are so bad the pump and filter she uses to bring water into her home from the lake have both failed. “This is a serious problem, I have a huge expense this year that I’ve never had,” she said. Buongiorno asked why the sewage treatment plants downstream couldn’t upgrade to a tertiary level of treatment so that they would require less water flow for dilution. Scott Carter of Hopatcong offered to host an event like a music festival or a tricky tray and spread the word via social media, with money raised going to the weed harvest operation. “I think we could do something great,” he said.
The next meeting of the Lake Hopatcong Commission is scheduled for Monday, August 15 at 7 p.m. at the Jefferson Municipal Building, 1033 Weldon Road, Lake Hopatcong.