Marina owners and local officials say the state mishandled a planned drawdown of Lake Hopatcong, creating unusually low water levels they maintain could hamper the start of this season's boating business.
As a result, they want the state Department of Environmental Protection to take emergency action to halt the flow of water from New Jersey's largest freshwater lake, to allow it to replenish. They are also keeping their fingers crossed for a continuation of heavy rains that pelted the lake Friday and today.
Water levels at Lake Hopatcong are still below normal, due to five-year drawdown, as spring boating season begins.
"We need help now," said Ron Sorensen, owner of the Lake Hopatcong, San Bar and Woodport marinas. "The state caused this problem and they need to fix it. I need at least another two feet of water in this lake before I can consider launching a boat."
Lake area officials contend DEP left the floodgates open for too long a period in December during a once-every-five-year, 5-foot lake drawdown. The drawdown is done so the lake's dam can be inspected and property owners can repair lakeshore structures. It also is done to help control aquatic vegetation and so crews can remove silt and drainage material.
But instead of stopping the outflow on Dec. 15, as scheduled, the gates were left open for an extra week or longer, lake area officials and business owners said. This resulted in drop of an extra two feet of water, they said.
The gauge at the lake's dam in Landing today showed the water level to be at 5.85 feet. The normal level is 9 feet. The optimum level needed to launch boats is about 7 1/2 feet.
State officials concede they extended the drawdown for an extra week but said they did it at the behest of property owners who wanted more time to make repairs. They also said a drier-than-usual February deprived the lake of its normal restoration process.
"We were trying to accommodate people who live there," DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said. "But this has more to do with the very dry winter than the drawdown."
On Friday, the DEP announced a temporary drop in the amount of water flowing from Lake Hopatcong and into the Musconetcong River, from 7.5 million gallons per day to the minimum flow allowed of 5.3 million gallons.
Maintaining a minimum flow rate is critical to protecting aquatic life in downstream reaches of the Musconetcong, which flows from Lake Hopatcong, DEP officials said. It also will ensure appropriate water levels in the river for opening day of trout season on Saturday they said.
But marina owners, whose yards are filled with dry-docked boats, are calling for more dramatic action. They want the flow stopped completely.
The lake is more than three feet below normal levels and only fills three inches for every inch of rain that falls, they said. Business owners are concerned a continued flow from the lake will make it difficult to bring it up to usable levels for boaters, and could even affect the early summer boating season.
Jefferson Mayor Russell Felter stood on the dock at Lee's County Park Marina in Mount Arlington today, pointing out the low water levels and hoping for more rain.
"The lake is open for business," he said, though he admits he's worried about an early season loss of customers for the boating industry and ancillary businesses, such as markets and gas stations that reap money from an influx of boaters and fishermen to the lake that lies in Morris and Sussex counties.
"Normally, our first boat launch is about March 15," Sorensen said. "But right now I have 350 boat slips that are filled and I've got six full-time boat mechanics I can't hire back. "I'm livid about what's happened here."