New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy promised $13.5 million in new state and federal money to help guard against and mitigate harmful algal blooms like the one that effectively closed Lake Hopatcong and other state-owned lakes at a meeting he held at the Lake Hopatcong Station on November 18.
The three members of Congress who attended the meeting, Josh Gottheimer (D-5), Mikie Sherrill (D-11) and Tom Malinowski (D-7) all said federal money would be available and they would fight for more.
“We are making sure the money comes back to New Jersey,” Malinowski said. He noted, “We are facing severe pressure from the federal administration of the EPA,” adding the House rejected the last round of cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.
State Senator Anthony Bucco (R-25) called the numbers encouraging but pressed Murphy for an exact amount that would be coming to Lake Hopatcong and Lake Musconetcong. The governor didn’t answer that.
He did break down the money. The bulk would be $10 million in Principal Forgiveness Grants for major infrastructure projects. Murphy cited the need to convert septic systems to public sewers in Jefferson Township and parts of Hopatcong Borough.
The 2002 sewer study for Jefferson posited the costs to sewer that township at $65 million in those days’ dollars. Mount Arlington Mayor Michael Stanzilis estimated about $100 million in today’s dollars.
A Promise for the Park
Saying, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” Murphy promised to honor a state commitment to connect Hopatcong State Park to the sewer line on Lakeside Boulevard in Roxbury Township.
Hopatcng Mayor Michael Francis said he will see to it that Crescent Cove is sewered. He said that section of the lake always shows the worst test results, but he wants it to become a model for improvement. State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) municipal representative Kerry Kirk-Pflug said there is money in the state Infrastructure Bank for hookups.
Other portions of the $13.5 million are $2.5 million in HAB/Lake Management Grants and $1 million in Watershed Planning Grants.
Murphy conceded the Highlands designation of most of Jefferson and other lake areas makes this section of the state unique. “We must keep that in the back of our minds,” he said.
He also said the money will not be used for studies, but action.
DeCroce Champions Mayors
Although the mayors of the four lake municipalities were invited to the meeting, they were not asked to speak until the private session was ending when Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-26) insisted, and Jefferson Mayor Eric Wilsusen reminded the governor there is a state-sanctioned body that manages Lake Hopatcong. He urged Murphy to make sure the Lake Hopatcong Commission continues to receive funding, including $500,000 a season for weed control.
Money wasn’t the only topic Murphy addressed.
He said the state DEP will work to establish mitigation strategies and emphasized the importance of science to the lake’s issues.
Murphy also promised to work on communication with the lake communities. He suggested setting up a graduated system of warnings, similar to hurricane alerts, rather than just saying “the lake is closed.” Lake businesses strenuously objected to misleading electronic signs on Route 80 during the Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) last summer.
He also promised the DEP would schedule Regional HAB Summits over the winter. Kirk-Pflug said probably three would be held.
Reaction to the meeting was mixed.
Marty Kane of the Lake Hopatcong Foundation said he was “Very hopeful. I am very impressed the Governor came. He knows the lake is an important resource.”
In a press release, the Lake Hopatcong Foundation wrote: “We were encouraged that Gov. Murphy responded to Monday’s feedback by suggesting monthly working meetings for the principal players in the room to check in on the progress of these initiatives and keep them moving quickly. . .We are particularly heartened by the commitment of our legislative delegation to pursue meaningful funding for the Lake Hopatcong Commission so that it can fulfill its intended mission in the management of our lake.”
Same Old Song
Bucco said, “The devil is in the details. We’ve heard this song before and the money ends up going somewhere else.” He said working with the stakeholders is critical.
Senator Steve Oroho (R-24) called the meeting a good first step. He said he would fight for the $13.5 million to come to Lake Hopatcong, Lake Musconetcong, Cranberry Lake, and Swartzwood Lake.
Stanziils said it is really important to complete sewers around the lake so the potential for loan forgiveness needs to be discussed more thoroughly.
Wilsusen said he is concerned there is not a provision for direct funding to the lake management agencies.
Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, issued a press release within a half hour of the close of Murphy’s meeting calling the plan “too little, too late.”
“What Governor Murphy announced today is not going to do anything to make our lakes better for next summer,” Tittel wrote, saying Murphy should have been working on the problem from the beginning of his administration.
“What Governor Murphy did today was more about having a press strategy than a real strategy,” Tittel wrote.
Murphy ended his meeting by promising “to use my bullhorn to sing the praises of our lakes and lake communities.” He also promised to visit the lake around Memorial Day weekend 2020.