Struggling to maintain its aging municipal infrastructure for use by residents and workers, Jersey City now finds itself with a big-ticket fix – this time for a site 40 miles outside the city limits.

It’s the Longwood Lake Dam in Jefferson Township in the rustic, northwest corner of Morris County where 45 species of birds, along with game birds like the wild turkey, make their home and anglers fish for trout and bass.  

State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) spokesman Larry Hajna said the 21-foot-high stone dam was originally constructed circa 1898 as part of Jersey City’s watershed. According to Hajna, the dam “impounds the waters of an unnamed tributary to the Rockaway River to create Longwood Lake.”

A few years later, the city built the Boonton Dam and Reservoir, also in Morris County, which became city’s primary potable water supply source. As a backup, Jersey City acquired the nearby Split Rock Reservoir on the borders of Rockaway and Kinnelon. 

In 1996, the city sold both its 2,700-acre Jefferson Township property and its 1,400-acre Split Rock watershed to the DEP as part of the state’s Green Acres preservation program for a total of $6.8 million on condition that it “retain the right to fully expand and protect its water resources” at the Split Rock site.

Excluded from the transaction, however, was the Longwood Lake Dam, upstream of the other Morris properties, which, according to the deed of sale, Jersey City was expected to “…convey…to (the) Longwood Lake (Cabin Owners) Association, who shall be wholly responsible for maintaining and/or operating the dam structure, using management practices approved by the (DEP)….”

The DEP, the deed notes, “claims no responsibility for the dam structure or its appurtenances, including access for maintenance.”

Since then, Jersey City and the homeowners’ group have been negotiating a deal for the dam which, city attorney John McKinney advised the council, the city “is under legal obligation” to “fix or decommission” before the sale can take place.

Responding to queries by the Jersey City Times, Jefferson Mayor Eric Wilsusen said, “The JCMUA reached out about taking over the dam once the repairs were complete but no final talks have been initiated.”

This issue – which has sat dormant for years – resurfaced in 2015 when the DEP changed the dam’s safety rating from “low hazard” to “high hazard” based on an inspection by engineers working for Jersey City.

This shift, explained DEP’s Hajna, reflected “a re-analysis of the dam … performed by the city’s engineering consultant which found that the dam does not meet current design standards” and that its structural integrity could be compromised, potentially complicating life for its neighbors with the possibility of dam failure resulting in flooding of homes and nearby roadways.

Morris County residents have become all too familiar with the consequences of compromised dams, particularly with the damages triggered by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

“In accordance with the Safe Dam Act (NJSA 58.4), as the owner of the property on which the Longwood Lake Dam is located, Jersey City is the dam owner and therefore responsible for maintenance and repairs of the dam as well as bringing the dam into compliance with the New Jersey Dam Safety Standards (NJAC 7:20),” Hajna added.

A DEP inventory of the state’s dams lists Longwood as being in “poor condition,” as of its last inspection July 14, 2021, but doesn’t provide details.

Hajna said Jersey City “has completed an alternative analysis to investigate compliance options and has contracted with (its) engineering consultant to develop a final design to rehabilitate the dam,” Hajna said. “We do not have a cost estimate for rehabilitation at this time.”

But former Jersey City engineer Joseph Cunha, the current executive director of the city’s Municipal Utilities Authority, which manages the city’s water supply system, told the City Council last month the dam could cost $1 million expenditure to repair.

As things are now, he said, the MUA spends $50,000 annually just to maintain the infrastructure.

And, if the city preferred to decommission the dam, since it draws no water from Longwood Lake, the cost could go even higher, cautioned attorney McKinney, because of potential environmental impacts to Longwood Lake and the natural habitat in the surrounding wilderness area, which is part of the Rockaway River Wildlife Management Area.

The July 2022 issue of the Longwood Lake Cabin Owners Association newsletter reported that, “Since November 2021, LLCOA’s lawyer, Eileen Born, has been in active discussions with the lawyer for the Jersey City MUA regarding having LLCOA (or a nonprofit designated by LLCOA) take ownership of the Longwood Lake Dam.”

And, the report noted, in December 2021, members of the (association’s) dam committee, joined by Born and the LLCOA’s engineer Paul Cox, met virtually with JCMUA’s lawyer and engineers to expedite rehabilitation of the dam and to transfer ownership.

“Our goal is that LLCOA or a new dam nonprofit take ownership with minimal cost. JCMUA would benefit from such a transfer by being relieved of ongoing dam maintenance obligations,” the report added.

Ultimately, the report said, it is envisioned that JCMUA’s contractors would undertake the repairs while “likely draining the lake for about four months while the work is being performed, during which time the Rockaway River will continue to flow through the lake ‘channel,’ (a process that) may provide LLCOA and its members an opportunity for lake-bed maintenance.”

LLCOA attorney Born couldn’t be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, Jersey City appears closer to a resolution of negotiations with the cabin owners group as the City Council voted May 24 to authorize transfer of the dam, which, according to the city resolution, “is no longer needed for any city use,” to the JCMUA “for the purpose of repairing or decommissioning….”

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...