‘My Huckleberry Friend’: Senate Pals Take to the Open Water

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) on Lake Hopatcong.
Lake Hopatcong
The Lake Hopatcong Gang (not pictured: the infamous green anaconda).

Algae bloom closed Lake Hopatcong to swimming for most of the summer, depriving residents of recreation and local businesses of their usual seasonal trade.

The move by the Democratic-run state of New Jersey also caused some friction with the region’s Republican lawmakers, most notably state Sen. Joe Pennacchio of the 26th District.

Pennacchio questioned if the closing was truly necessary, suggesting the state Department of Environmental Protection may have overreacted for political reasons. A cynical Pennacchio said the lake closing may have been used to drum-up support for a so-called “rain tax,” a proposed levy on extensive water runoff. In fact, runoff into the lake from surrounding areas was partly blamed for the algae bloom.

Pennacchio’s suspicions grew when he said the DEP denied his request to review data that prompted the agency to close the lake.

That was a few weeks ago.

Today, the picture, if not the lake water, was considerably brighter. Senate President Stephen Sweeney journeyed up from south Jersey to join Pennacchio and Republican state Sen. Steve Oroho from Sussex County for an afternoon boat ride on the lake.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senators Joe Pennacchio and Steve Oroho and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald unveil a package of bills designed to fix New Jersey’s fiscal crisis, restore the stability of the pension system and save tens of billions of dollars for taxpayers.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, and Senators Joe Pennacchio and Steve Oroho.

Sweeney seemed as excited as the proverbial kid on Christmas morning, gushing about the “stunning” beauty of the surroundings and describing the lake as one of the “jewels” of the state.

This was all new for Sweeney, who was seeing the lake for the first time. He joked that he practically lives in “Delaware.”

As the boat chugged around the state’s largest lake with the three senators, local officials and a fair number of reporters on board, Sweeney agreed that Pennacchio and everybody else deserved to see why the lake was closed to swimming this year. In fact, he said he would arrange a face-to-face meeting with the DEP commissioner to discuss the matter.

Pennacchio seemed satisfied, remarking when the party returned to shore that Sweeney was  “a man of his word”  for following through on a pledge to visit the lake.

Money, of course, will be needed going forward.

More than a decade ago, the state created the Lake Hopatcong Commission – an initiative spearheaded by the late Sen. Anthony R. Bucco – to maintain the lake, but never funded it adequately.

Sweeney said that has to change.

He talked about a planned $500,000 expense to fix the Boardwalk in Wildwood, adding “Sometimes you need to spend some (money)  to make  money.”

Many Morris and Sussex officials and residents say Lake Hopatcong is as important to the local economy as the Shore is to southern New Jersey.

Of course, some of the lake’s long-term problems are not attributed alone to lack of funds. Officials say water temperature in the lake has risen about 3 degrees in the last 20 years.

“Climate change is hitting New Jersey harder than any other state and the algae bloom at  Lake Hopatcong is just one warning sign,” Sweeney said.

There are also more basic problems. All properties surrounding the lake are not hooked-up to sewers, which doesn’t help water quality.

As Pennacchio has pointed out more than once, a state park on the Roxbury side of the lake relies on a septic system.

Sweeney said the failure of the park to tie-into a nearby sewer line is “embarrassing.”

But it was Pennacchio who had the best quip of the day, saying the lake’s problems must be solved with environmental science, not political science.

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