Tug of war continues on best course of action for ailing Stockbridge Bowl

The popular state-owned Stockbridge Bowl is bedeviled by pesky and persistent summertime Eurasian watermilfoil weed infestations. It's also threatened by potential return of a toxic algae bloom that closed the lake to recreational use for two weeks in September.

STOCKBRIDGE — Town leaders agree that Stockbridge Bowl needs intensive care, but consensus on a cure remains elusive.

The popular state-owned "Great Pond" is bedeviled by pesky and persistent summertime Eurasian watermilfoil weed infestations. It's also threatened by potential return of a toxic algae bloom that closed the lake to recreational use for two weeks in September, forcing relocation of the Josh Billings RunAground to Richmond Pond.

But at a recent Select Board meeting, deep divisions resurfaced over potential chemical treatment of the invasive weeds that could save the lake from turning into a bog.

The Stockbridge Bowl Association is filing a "notice of intent" with the Conservation Commission and with Mass Wildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species program for approval of chemical treatment to vanquish the weeds. The commission will hold a hearing on the notice at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 11.

Association President Richard Seltzer told The Eagle that the group has been studying alternative means to safely control milfoil for many years, consulting other lake associations and independent experts and also commissioning an Aquatic Plant Survey to evaluate the bases for the safe use of herbicides.

Based on its research, Seltzer said, the association determined that herbicides have been safely and widely used for decades in hundreds of other Massachusetts lakes, reservoirs and ponds, including Richmond Pond, Onota Lake, Pontoosuc Lake, Goose Pond and Otis Reservoir. Nationwide, such use includes thousands of lakes, he added.

At the Nov. 19 Select Board meeting, Board of Health Chairman Dr. Charles Kenny reminded the selectmen and townspeople that his board, working with Tri-Town Health and state officials, had to shut down the bowl because of a cyanobacterial algae bloom that "produces a poison in the water that can be harmful to people, pets and actually can kill fish and wildlife."

Kenny cautioned that the blooms tend to recur "again and again, not necessarily every year, but they tend to come one year after another."

He told the Select Board that Michael Celona, chief of the water toxics unit at the state Department of Health, invited the town to form a task force to consider solutions that would help prevent another outbreak.

The group appointed by the selectmen will include a representative from the Board of Health, the town's Water and Sewer Commission and two members of the Conservation Commission. It is expected to begin discussions Dec. 13, at the next Board of Health meeting.

According to Kenny, the Stockbridge Bowl Association was invited to join the task force on the condition that "they not unilaterally go ahead and do something to the lake on their own without the benefit of expertise from state officials." The bowl association's executive committee met and declined the invitation, he said, but it remains on the table.

In response, Seltzer told The Eagle that the association has offered to work with Kenny's task force, but the association will not postpone its notice of intent to address the milfoil invasion.

"The milfoil needs to be controlled," Seltzer said by e-mail, "and the historic opposition of the Conservation Commission flies in the face of the safe experience with herbicides — including specifically fluridone — on thousands of lakes for over three decades."

Fluridone is the chemical being proposed in the notice of intent.

He added that the state's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife has written to the SBA specifically endorsing the use of herbicides to control milfoil and that its Natural Heritage division has found the authorized chemicals to be safe for humans, fish and the species of rare snails that inhabit Stockbridge Bowl.

On the cyanobacteria issue, Seltzer said that the association is considering hiring an outside firm to conduct a 12-month study of the nutrient conditions that are promoting the growth of the toxic algae blooms.

"Based on that study, the association hopes to be in a position to recommend methods for combating algae/cyanobacteria which have succeeded on other lakes," he said.

Selectman Terry Flynn has asked Kenny if his task force can help thwart the association's plan to attack the weeds, "disregarding the town. If our Conservation Commission prohibits the use of chemicals in the lake, the state can override that."

Flynn asserted that the association intends to disregard the town's objections "and go directly to the state, which, to me, is a huge problem."

He suggested that if the state sides with the association and allows the chemical treatments, the town "has no responsibility to spend a dime on Stockbridge Bowl, except to take care of our own town beach."

In response, Kenny cited "thousands of pages of studies" on how to tackle the milfoil weeds.

But, on behalf of the Board of Health, he depicted the weed infestation as a "nuisance" while the cyanobacteria bloom is a health hazard.

"The town should be in charge of what goes on," Kenny said. "The lake is too important for just one group to control it and do things. But at the same time, I see the desperate position that the people who live around the lake feel that they're in. I'm very sympathetic to that. Science should prevail here, and our group will bring science to bear on the problem, getting experts to tell us what should be done."

Because of the rare snail habitat on the lake, MassWildlife blocked the town's extensive dredging project allowing a 5-foot winter drawdown that would have helped wipe out the weeds.

Kenny also commented that, based on the studies he has reviewed, Eurasian watermilfoil actually inhibits the development of toxic algae outbreaks.

"If the milfoil is summarily eradicated," he cautioned, "it seems like it might predispose the lake to have more cyanobacterial blooms."

On the other hand, he acknowledged that if the weeds keep spreading, "the lake will turn into a bog, which is not something that most people in Berkshire County and in Stockbridge would like to see."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.