August 12, 2008

Fear Washes Over Lake Officials ; Concern Sediment Will Surge Downstream After Dam Breach


WEST MILFORD State officials are a step closer to breaching the unsafe West Milford Lake dam, and that has some local officials worried that stagnant water and sediment will drain into a stream that feeds Greenwood Lake.

The project, now going out to bid for contractors to slice up the earthen dam, is expected to cost about $400,000, said John Moyle, bureau chief for Dam Safety and Flood Control at the state Department of Environmental Protection. He estimates the dam will be breached sometime in the spring.

Work will include removing sediment, although exactly how much is not known at this time.

But Greenwood Lake commissioners said they fear the phosphorous- rich water and sediment that makes its way to the 9-mile long waterway will exacerbate the lake's ongoing weed problem at a time when they are desperately trying to get the vegetation under control.

"We don't want a load of fertilizer dumped in Greenwood Lake," said Commissioner Eric Hastings. "And we're not sure there is enough money to truck it all away."

The 13-acre West Milford Lake, perched just above Marshall Hill Road, empties into Belcher Creek, which flows into Greenwood Lake. State officials deemed its earthen dam unsafe and said it must be repaired or removed. The defunct property owners association, which still owns the property, did not have the funding to fix the dam, so the state came in with plans to breach it.

Since then, a former resident, Anthony Patire of Clifton, started paying the back taxes on the lake and shoreline and began foreclosure proceedings, but he still does not own it. Township Attorney Fred Semrau said the municipality is reaching out to Patire to try and negotiate to acquire the property. If it becomes township land, it will be eligible for grant applications to spruce up what essentially will be a swamp.

Patire said recently that he is looking forward to "sitting down with town officials to discuss what can be done with that property. It's a beautiful location right in the middle of town, but with the Highlands Act and all the other things, we'll work together to figure something out."

But as plans progress to empty West Milford Lake, several Greenwood Lake commissioners said they are worried the state will come in, breach the dam and walk away.

Commissioner George Verno, a retired attorney, said he contemplated filing an injunction against the state to prevent it from breaching the dam until the commission was given some type of assurance that no damage will be done to Greenwood Lake.

Instead, he's decided "to not file the injunction but sue if the lake is damaged," Verno said. "We really should all be working together on this, but the state has not included us in any of the plans."

The DEP's Moyle said not to worry.

"I understand the commissioners' concerns, but we've had dozens of dams removed across the state and we've had no adverse water- quality problems."

In addition to cutting the dam open and removing sediment, work will include stabilizing the channel of water that currently runs into the lake and will then become only a stream.

Since that's where the DEP's responsibility ends, the local environmental commission is taking the next step.

It proposed a plan for the lakebed that the Township Council signed off on to just let the natural stream flow and stabilize the stream bed.

"We are looking for grants to fund the work after the DEP breaches the dam," said Robert Sparkes, an employee of the planning department.

"But the town has to own the land to get the grants. I know the commissioners are concerned that the water and sediment may cause harm to Greenwood Lake, but we have to trust that the state knows what it's doing."


Fast facts

West Milford Lake:

* There are nine lakefront homes.

* About 200 houses are in the surrounding neighborhood.

* The lake area used to be home to bass, catfish, blue herons, egrets, snakes, muskrats and turtles.


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