PITTSFIELD -- State environmental officials will soon have more authority to prevent the spread of zebra mussels in Massachusetts waterways.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick has signed into law a bill allowing Massachusetts Environmental Police to fine boaters who willfully launch a vessel infested with zebra mussels.

"Without the ability to enforce laws on the books, we won't be able to contain this problem," said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, a leading sponsor of the bill.

Under the law that takes effect in 90 days, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) can also establish an aquatic nuisance control program to study and promote ways toward preventing the spread of all invasive water species.

An invasive species first detected in the Berkshires nearly four years ago, zebra mussels can proliferate in staggering numbers, with as many as 700,000 occupying a square yard. They can clog boat motors, jam intake pipes, and sink buoys with their weight. They also are avaricious eaters, filtering up to a liter of water a day apiece, depriving young fish of crucial nutrients. Since they are nearly impossible to eradicate, containing their spread is the only answer.

Local municipal and environmental officials on Thursday praised Downing and the rest of the Berkshire legislative delegation for pushing through a bill they view as crucial in battling zebra mussels.

"From an enforcement standpoint, passing this bill is key to preventing the spread of zebra mussels," said James McGrath, Pittsfield's manager of parks and open space. He's also the city harbormaster for Pontoosuc and Onota lakes.

"All it takes is one infested boat to spread the zebra mussels to our lakes," McGrath said.

In July 2009, Laurel Lake in Lee became the first -- and so far the only -- Berkshire County lake or pond to be infested with the invasive species. Zebra mussels did eventually spread from the lake downstream to Laurel Brook and the Housatonic River as far south as the Connecticut line.

While the species grows to the size of a thumbnail, its microscopic larvae attach themselves to boats and fishing gear. If the equipment is not thoroughly cleaned, the young zebra mussels easily can be transported to other lakes, ponds and rivers.

Since zebra mussels invaded the county, the DCR has helped several local communities establish boat ramp monitors at lakes vulnerable to the mollusks. The monitors make sure boaters have vessels that are free of zebra mussels and if not, they are thoroughly cleansed. Boat wash stations were established at Laurel Lake, Stockbridge Bowl and at V's Car Wash in Pittsfield.

In addition, the monitors educate the public about the risk zebra mussels pose to the environment.

"The boating public has generally been very cooperative, but occasionally we get someone who harasses our boat monitors," said George Shippey, chairman of the Stockbridge Zebra Mussel Committee.

Shippey feels the next step in enforcement is mandating all watercraft and their trailers exiting Laurel Lake be washed at the boat ramp.

"It hurts our effort to protect the other lakes if those boats aren't cleansed," he said.

Stockbridge Bowl is one of several other Berkshire lakes considered at high risk of becoming infected with zebra mussels.

Lakes are vulnerable to the mollusks if the water has high levels of acidity and calcium and a hard bottom, Shippey said. Stockbridge Bowl has two out of three factors, but has a soft bottom. Combined with the monitoring program, that reduces the risk.

In addition, some local environmentalists want an effort made to try to eradicate zebra mussels from Laurel Lake.

"A deep drawdown would help toward reducing the number of zebra mussels," said Jack Hickey, president of the Lakes and Ponds Association of Western Massachusetts.

Hickey also urged local, state officials and the public to remain vigilant in keeping zebra mussels at bay.

"Complacency is always a problem," he said. "They are dangerous things to the other lakes in the Berkshires."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.