Billing dispute settled, work on fighting Stockbridge Bowl weeds can continue

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STOCKBRIDGE — Settlement of a billing dispute between the town and GZA GeoEnvironmental's Springfield office has cleared the way for further preliminary work on a $4 million restoration project to dredge and remove invasive Eurasian milfoil weeds gaining a chokehold near the shore of the 372-acre Stockbridge Bowl.

The town hired GZA as the consulting firm to do engineering studies and seek regulatory approvals before the town can go out to bid for removal of 22,000 cubic yards of sediment in the southern section of the lake, Stockbridge Bowl Association President Richard Seltzer told the Select Board at Monday night's meeting.

The dredging and silt-removal is required before a 5.5-foot winter drawdown of the lake designed to kill the milfoil weeds clogging the entire perimeter of the lake, he said.

The 2014 contract between the town and GZA put a $154,000 cap on spending that the company "chose to ignore by sending the town bills that exceeded the limits," Seltzer said.

GZA halted work on the engineering studies and regulatory approvals after its bills were challenged, he added.

To resolve the dispute, the Select Board sought guidance from Jennie Merrill, an attorney who works with Town Counsel J. Raymond Miyares's firm, Miyares and Harrington.

Under a compromise intended to enable the engineering study to resume, GZA reduced its demand for work already completed by $128,210, Seltzer told The Eagle on Tuesday. "We agreed that's a fair settlement," he stated. The total now owed to the company is $132,947 for work performed so far, some of which exceeded the scope of the original contract.

Payments to the company from town coffers will come out of funds raised by the Stockbridge Bowl Association. Under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water Act, the town is being reimbursed by the state through a $672,000 grant administered by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"Even with the announced settlement, as long as the DEP money is there, we will keep being reimbursed for the full amount being paid to GZA," Seltzer said.

The town is set to pay the company a total of $132,947 this week, said Town Administrator Danielle Fillio, in order to be reimbursed by the state grant. That includes a $54,748 invoice from a year ago which had been held pending a settlement of the dispute.

Then, Seltzer told board members, a contract amendment worth $158,000 will be executed with GZA for future work to finish the engineering study. That will bring the total to $485,000 for all studies and regulatory work done by the company since 2014, all covered by the association's funds previously raised.

A corporate manager and an attorney at GZA did not return calls seeking comment; an office manager said he could not discuss the matter.

The dredging project has been funded by the Clean Water Act through next June; then, the Stockbridge Bowl Association would have to re-apply on behalf of the town for further support.

"There is some risk that the present administration in Washington, not thinking that the Clean Water Act is worth enforcing and not thinking that rivers and waterways ought to remain unpolluted, will stop funding," Seltzer said.

State DEP officials remain "guardedly optimistic" that the federal funding would remain in place for the Stockbridge Bowl project, he said, "but there are no guarantees. Who knows what will happen in Washington."

Town taxpayers have supported the lake cleanup, approving $825,000, including a series of Community Preservation Act grants in recent years. Currently, $305,000 of that funding remains available when needed, Fillio told the Select Board.

The actual dredging is expected to cost $2 million, Seltzer confirmed, but it's not expected to begin for another two years. Regulatory hurdles remain, he said, because the state DEP's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program seeks to protect a rare species of snail that is found only in only two Massachusetts locations — Stockbridge Bowl and Laurel Lake.

"We have to reassure them that the snails will survive the dredging project," Seltzer said. "Once we convince them of that, we'll be able to proceed with other regulatory permits."

The dredging may take place during the winter of 2018-19, giving the association time to raise more money.

The 5.5-foot drawdown before subsequent winters would expose the invasive milfoil's roots so they would freeze and die before the first protective blanket of snow. The Town of Stockbridge Lake Management Plan has been approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Stockbridge Conservation Commission.

Following the Monday discussion, the Select Board voted 3-0 to approve the settlement agreement with GZA and to authorize board Chairman Donald Chabon to sign the necessary documents, including payment authorization.

The nonprofit Stockbridge Bowl Association developed the $4 million lake restoration plan for the state-designated "Great Pond" eight years ago. Clean Water Act grants have totaled $910,000.

The 400-member association has raised $265,000 from private foundations, notably the Derfner Foundation and the Jack and Jane Fitzpatrick Trust, as well as more than $150,000 from local businesses including Berkshire Bank, Canyon Ranch and Camp Mah-Kee-Nac as well as nonprofits such as the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and the Boston Symphony.

Private donations have been the greatest source of funding — more than $1 million from individuals who live on or near the lake.

If left untreated, portions of the mile-wide, two-mile long bowl, originally known as Lake Mahkeenac, could turn into an unsightly marsh, hampering boating and threatening the idyllic beauty of the much-photographed and filmed setting.

At least 6,000 watercraft use the lake every year, according to a count at the town's boat launch off Route 183. The annual Josh Billings Runaground triathlon in mid-September includes a twice-around-the-lake race by more than 500 kayaks and canoes.

Although it's owned by the state, maintenance and preservation of the lake is primarily the responsibility of the town. About 400 seasonal and year-round property owners live on or near the Bowl.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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