By Jane Primerano
Lake Musconetcong is a peaceful place.
On an overcast summer day a family of swans lounges near the boat launch on Barney’s Way in Stanhope. The normally aggressive parent birds barely acknowledge a visitor taking photos as the cygnets play at the water’s edge.
In years past bass fishing organizations booked tournaments on the lake, children learned to swim at the municipal beaches and the lake was full of recreation. Weed growth curtailed use of the lake, although there is still some boating, Earl Riley, chair of the Lake Musconetcong Regional Planning Board said.
The lake was originally a swamp with the Musconetcong River cutting through it. When the Morris Canal and Banking Corp. needed water for the canal in the early 19th Century, they built the dam between Netcong and Stanhope and created the lake. Eutrophication is reversing the process.
“It’s a natural progression,” Riley said. “It wants to be a swamp.”
The major weapons against weeds are two weed harvesters. The harvesters have cutting blades and a conveyor that brings the weeds onto the boat where they can be transferred to a truck and taken to a landfill. The large harvester belongs to the planning board purchased with a state grant in 2000. The smaller one belongs to the Lake Hopatcong Commission and came into possession of the planning board under an agreement struck by former State Park employee Steve Ellis.
When the commission was looking for funding to pay for harvesting, Ellis, then superintendent of the northwest region, secured $40,000 in funding for Lake Hopatcong on the condition Lake Musconetcong could use the harvested under a memorandum of understanding to be renewed annually.
Lake Hopatcong’s harvesting equipment was in a warehouse in Franklin for years because the commission didn’t have a budget for harvesting. When the equipment was purchased by the since-disbanded Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board, there were several full-time employees and a sufficient budget for maintenance of the equipment. The state gradually cut back and now gives Lake Hopatcong $155,000 each year for harvesting.
Because of the state money and the fact the State Park Commission runs the harvesting, Lake Hopatcong cannot use volunteers to run the harvesters. Lake Musconetcong doesn’t take state money, so it does use volunteers, Riley said, paying liability and personal injury insurance out of the board’s budget.
Although both lakes are owned by the state under the terms of the dissolution of the Morris Canal and Banking Corp., the Lake Musconetcong Regional Planning Board was established in 1990 and has continued, unlike the Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board. Lake Musconetcong’s is one of only two regional planning boards in the state, Riley said. The other is in South Jersey.
Funding is from the four towns and two counties around the lake, Riley said.
Morris and Sussex counties each contribute 12.5 percent of the budget. The municipalities are assessed according to their lake frontage. Byram Township is only responsible for three percent because it only has a tiny piece of shoreline in Byram Cove. Stanhope contributes 46 percent, Netcong somewhere around 30 percent and Roxbury about 20 percent, Riley said.
He pointed out actually Byram had the most frontage originally. Hopatcong and Stanhope both seceded from Byram. The section of Byram that touches the lake may simply be a surveying error when Stanhope seceded, Riley said.
It was in that Byram Cove area that water chestnuts were first discovered. An invasive species, they are described by Dr. Fred Lubnow of Princeton Hydro, environmental consultants for both Lake Hopatcong and Lake Musconetcong, as having leaves that float on the surface and spiky seed pods below. Riley said the invaders’ seeds probably were brought in on waterfowl.
Lubnow said even though the water chestnut problem was severe, Lake Musconetcong has taken actions that are helping considerably.
Several years ago, the former chair of the planning board, Doug Zellman, founded the Lake Musconetcong Community Association, made up of lakefront property owners and friends of the lake. It is a 501c3 organization so it can raise funds for lake preservation. The LMCA pays for herbicide application in front of private property.
With the weed harvesters running five days a week, often with both the large and small harvesters on the water, and the herbicides, weeds seem to be under control on the surface. However, even with harvesting, not all of the weeds are pulled out of the lake and herbicides merely kill the weeds and allow the dead vegetation to fall back onto the lake bottom.
For this reason, the planning board is experimenting with probiotics, sludge eating bacteria. The enzyme-enhanced bacteria come in pellet form and ingest the sludge. In areas it has been tried, the water column has increased between six and 12 inches. In a lake as shallow as Musconetcong, that’s a big improvement.
Riley said a bathometric study by Princeton Hydro, the planning board’s environmental consultant, revealed the average lake depth is 4.5 feet. The deepest section, where the river runs through it, is only about 6 feet. Where it covers the canal towpath, the depth is much less. The towpath is only submerged at all because the dam was raised after the canal was deactivated, holding back more water.
When the lake is lowered for maintenance or docks or other structures, people walk on the towpath, Riley said.
Multiple core samples reveal nearly 4 feet of muck. Beneath the sludge is a layer of peat somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 feet deep. “It was a forest,” Riley said. “We occasionally hit a 19th Century stump with the harvester,” he added.
Dredging would take care of the depth problems, but the cost is estimated at $60 million, Riley said. He explored offsetting the cost of dredging by digging out and selling the peat, but it isn’t cost effective, he said.
So, for now, Riley and his team of volunteers will continue to harvest the weeds to keep residents, and the 64 swans he has counted on the lake, happy.