STOCKBRIDGE — To save Stockbridge Bowl from turning into a weed-infested bog, a safe, effective, widely used chemical treatment is necessary, starting next spring.
That's the position of the Stockbridge Bowl Association, representing around 400 property owners who live on or near the 372-acre state-owned lake maintained by the town; the Bowl is surrounded by a nearly 7,000-acre watershed of mostly forested land.
The Conservation Commission is holding a public hearing on the proposal at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Town Office's Select Board meeting room.
The commission has a nearly four-decade policy against any chemical treatment of the lake, a hub for water recreation enthusiasts and for events such as the annual Josh Billings RunAground held in mid-September.
Muddying the waters further, the lake suffered a toxic algae bloom in late summer, prompting the Tri-Town Health Department and local Board of Health to put it off limits to swimmers and boaters for two weeks. The outbreak has been blamed on excessive heat, rainfall and pollutant runoff, and in response a Stockbridge Bowl Health Committee has been formed, led by Dr. Charles Kenny, the Board of Health chairman.
The invasive Eurasian milfoil weed problem will hold the spotlight at Tuesday's meeting.
"I'd like to see the town come together on this and address the real causes instead of treating symptoms in ways that do damage to the wildlife at the Bowl," said Conservation Commission member Thomas LaBelle in an email to The Eagle.
Treatment track record
The plan to vanquish the weeds was prepared for Bowl property owners by Solitude Lake Management of Shrewsbury. The company has treated numerous lakes statewide and elsewhere in the U.S. Lakes in Berkshire County that have been chemically treated include Richmond Pond, Onota and Pontoosuc lakes in Pittsfield, Goose Pond in Lee and Tyringham, Prospect Lake in Egremont and the Otis Reservoir.
The plan would treat Stockbridge Bowl with aquatic herbicides approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as the state Department of Agricultural Resources.
The project description states that "despite frequent mechanical harvesting and localized hydro-raking efforts," the invasive species cover "more than 60 percent of the shoreline area capable of supporting rooted planted growth."
As a result, overall water quality as well as the fish and wildlife habitat are threatened, resulting in the need for a long-term control and management program, the application states.
Solitude and the association seek approval of the chemical herbicide fluridone (Sonar) and conditional approval for florpyrauxifen-benzyl (sold as ProcellaCOR EC), which is registered in Massachusetts, the document specifies. A minimum amount of the chemicals would be used, at or below suggested doses according to the product label.
Fluridone applied at recommended doses "is generally viewed as having one of the most environmentally friendly toxicology profiles of all products currently on the market," according to the application.
However, the document acknowledges, there would be 30-day restrictions on adjacent drinking water and irrigation use. "Although there are no restrictions on swimming, boating or fishing, prudent use suggests that we close the pond on the day of treatment," Solitude recommends. Warning signs detailing the restrictions would be posted along the shoreline before several treatments next spring and summer.
Along with the herbicide applications, non-chemical approaches, such as a snorkeler or Diver Assisted Suction Harvester (DASH) team, hand-harvesting and matting would prevent regrowth of invasive species.
"This continued management pressure will be critical to sustaining long-term target plant control and ultimately achieving a restoration of native habitat," the application states.
The chemical phase of the program would begin in late April and May, the application states, with several "booster treatments" starting about a month after the first treatment.
Solitude and the association are seeking "multiple-year approval" of the management program "to control growth of Eurasian watermilfoil, in addition to other non-native aquatic plant species, to improve and maintain open water habitat, promote the growth of pervasive native plant species, and provide safe recreational access to the waterbody."
The chemical treatment would not cause "significant alteration to the wetland resource areas," Solitude's application states. "Instead, the resource areas will be enhanced" by controlling non-native, invasive plants, thus improving water quality.
The application notes that alternatives were considered — harvesting, hydro-raking, biological controls, drawdowns, sediment excavation and dredging, or doing nothing — but none are recommended because they would be ineffective, and in some cases, threaten aquatic inhabitants, notably the rare snail species that caused the state to reject a previous association dredging proposal.
The 173-page document includes a list of abutters, as well as numerous charts, maps and forms for the state Department of Environmental Protection, since the lake is considered a "Great Pond" owned by the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Most of the abutters are seasonal residents from out of the county, but some are full-time local residents, including Donald Chabon, chairman of the Select Board, who lives on Lake Drive.
Not called for by the town, townspeople
According to LaBelle, the Conservation Commission member, "if carried out, this project will mark the abandonment of the 38-year-old town policy prohibiting the use of toxic substances in the lake. To be clear, neither the government of Stockbridge nor the townspeople have indicated a willingness to abandon this policy."
LaBelle asserted that "the SBA leadership alone made the decision to take this drastic step, and a majority of SBA members have approved their action. The other residents of Stockbridge have had no say in the matter."
He also argued that "in a further break with the past, the SBA has made it clear that the town, in their view, is no longer a partner in managing the lake. Determined to have their own way, they have done everything in their power to act independently of the town. They have gone so far as to refuse to join with the Board of Health in concerting measures to prevent a repetition of this year's toxic algal bloom."
LaBelle claimed that the Stockbridge Bowl Association is "willing to risk disaster rather than acknowledge the authority of any town agency to interfere with their plans."
If the Conservation Commission rejects the association's application for lake management, the state would have the final say, since the state legislature has taken the position that local governments lack the authority to regulate the use of herbicide. State courts have overruled several towns that opposed herbicide treatment, including Wayland several years ago.
At its annual meeting last summer, the SBA reported that it has about $2 million available for a lake cleanup and has spent several hundred thousand on engineering and design studies for the dredging and drawdown project rejected by the state because of the rare snails inhabiting the shoreline. In addition, $1 million was spent on a diversion pipe for the ill-fated major dredging project.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.