STOCKBRIDGE — A plan to fight the rapidly expanding weed infestation in Stockbridge Bowl with an herbicide has been shot down over concerns about its effectiveness.
The town's Conservation Commission on Tuesday rejected an application by the Stockbridge Bowl Association to combat the infestation with a limited, low-dose test of an herbicide this spring. Members voted 4-0 to deny a permit for a fluridone treatment by Solitude Lake Management on a 40-acre portion of the state-owned lake's southern shoreline area, as recommended by Robert Kortmann, a commission-hired scientist.
The reason, according to the commission: The project would not "significantly improve the capacity of the Stockbridge Bowl to protect and sustain" the ecological restoration of the lake under the state's Wetlands Protection Act.
In a separate decision, the commission also rejected the project under the town's wetlands bylaw, voting unanimously that the treatment approved by state and federal environmental agencies would "harm the environmental quality of the Bowl," or "would have unacceptable significant or cumulative effects upon the resource area values protected by the bylaw."
During the public hearing Tuesday, longtime member Sally Underwood-Miller pointed out that the Conservation Commission voted in 2003 to forbid chemical treatment of the 372-acre lake "in perpetuity." She also cited a town meeting vote prohibiting an herbicide solution to the festering Eurasian milfoil weeds threatening to turn portions of the lake into a bog.
She contended that attacking weed infestation fails to address "highly complex problems" caused, in part, by landscape fertilizer used on nearby lawns and waste runoff from High Lawn Farm. She questioned the property management of lakefront residents and whether there was a consensus favoring the proposed herbicide treatment.
"It's imperative that the people who live around the lake become stewards of the lake," Underwood-Miller said. "We need a cohesive plan that addresses all the issues we have, and not just one. It worries me more than anything else that we'll do this one thing, get rid of the weeds, and then nobody will care anymore. So we can paddle around happily and that's all we care about. That scares me to death."
Dr. Charles Kenny, chairman of the town's Board of Health, described the limited fluridone treatment as a "reasonable risk" in preventing a recurrence of the cyanobacteria algae bloom that afflicted the lake late last summer "if and only if we have the full cooperation of the Stockbridge Bowl Association and everybody involved in working toward watershed and whole-lake management in the future."
"Ten years from now, if we don't cooperate, the lake is doomed," he said. "I see that Dr. Kortmann's ideas are sound, and I would recommend them from that point of view. The risk to the public safety of any kind of fluridone application is determined, ultimately, by the Board of Health."
Speaking as a lakefront resident, Donald Chabon, who chairs the Select Board, called for a coordinated approach to lake management instead of the town's "fractured basis" up to now.
"I don't think we've represented ourselves particularly effectively," he said.
Another lakefront resident, Anita Schwerner, said during the hearing that "it doesn't seem like the use of fluridone was a well-thought-out plan, it seems like it was rushed. I don't see a lake management plan, I'm seeing a way to getting rid of some of the milfoil, maybe, and making people feel better that there is something happening. Things can be done other than pouring fluridone into the lake."
An herbicide treatment plan was approved by the Stockbridge Bowl leadership last spring, after Mass Wildlife vetoed a previous dredging and deep drawdown project because it would threaten a rare snail that lives on the shoreline.
Citing more than 30 years of success with fluridone in thousands of lakes and reservoirs nationwide, and hundreds in Massachusetts, without any adverse consequences, Richard Seltzer said that lake water is safe to drink, even on the day the herbicide is applied.
"I would drink it," said Seltzer, president of the Stockbridge Bowl Association.
A Cornell University study found that, based on the low-dose treatment approved in Massachusetts, someone would have to drink 75,000 gallons of water in a day to encounter any risk, he added.
A letter to the commission from Ken Kelly, president of the Richmond Pond Association, recommended fluridone as a "very effective herbicide in knocking down weeds" and encouraging the revival of native species, Seltzer noted.
Decision to be appealed
The commission's rejection of the herbicide treatment permit under the state's Wetlands Protection Act will be appealed to the Department of Environmental Protection, said Elisabeth Goodman of Cain Hibbard & Meyers, the Bowl Association's attorney. And the permit denial under the town bylaw also will be appealed to Berkshire Superior Court, she told The Eagle after the meeting.
"The Bowl Association intends to diligently pursue its appeals and hopes that the appeals will be resolved in time to permit the milfoil treatment," Goodman added.
"The Stockbridge Bowl Association is committed to proceeding," Seltzer said. "We feel that with the testimony of Dr. Robert Kortmann supporting the use of fluridone, that was the only proper decision to be made."
At the Jan. 8 commission meeting, Kortmann recommended a limited one-season fluridone treatment of the lake as the best first step to attack the problem. He's an environmental scientist, specialist in lake restoration and a limnologist who studies inland aquatic ecosystems.
Seltzer voiced disappointment over the commission's denial.
"I thought they would rely on their expert who knew his field extremely well and instructed them that fluridone was a safe, effective remedy," he said.
He also suggested that the commission "had its mind made up" based on previous opposition to chemical treatment of the lake, but "not based on any scientific evidence."
Goodman pointed out that the commission had agreed that all necessary information had been provided on the permit application. She also noted that Mass Wildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program had endorsed the one-time test treatment of the lake.
"I think the hearing was a charade," Seltzer said.
After Tuesday's public hearing, Underwood-Miller told The Eagle that the decision wasn't reached easily.
"It was not a decision we made ahead of time," she said. "We agonized over every part of this."
Commission Chairman Ron Brouker acknowledged that "we expected a different dialogue" from Kortmann, their chosen witness.
"There was a big part of what we wanted to know that we didn't get from him," Underwood-Miller added. "I had many follow-up questions for him that he said were not within his expertise."
During the meeting, she voiced skepticism over how the health of the lake would be monitored after any chemical treatment. She also questioned the impact of removing the invasive weeds on the lake's native plants.
In a series of preliminary decisions before rejecting the application, the commission voted 4-0 that the proposal, as defined by Mass Wildlife, did meet the state's definition of an ecological restoration project under the state's Wetlands Protection Act.
The members also agreed that there was insufficient evidence to refute Mass Wildlife's findings that the bridle shiner minnow, native to the lake, and boreal marstonia, a snail that inhabits the lake, would not be harmed by the fluridone treatment.
But Brouker said that the chemical application would "throw everything out of balance" in the lake.
"I can see this upsetting the status quo even more," he said.
The Conservation Commission will meet Feb. 5 to review and sign the decision to be written by Underwood-Miller with Rebekah Lacey of Miyares & Harrington, the town counsel. The Bowl Association then has 10 business days to file an appeal to the state DEP for a review of the commission denial under the Wetlands Protection Act, and 60 days to appeal the town bylaw decision to Berkshire Superior Court.
Clarence Fanto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.