Clarence Fanto: A solution to snail/weed tug of war may not be all that difficult to achieve

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LENOX — This is a tale of two lakes, both classified as state-owned Great Ponds, and both suffering from a malady common throughout New England — an infestation of Eurasian milfoil plants, more commonly known as weeds.

At Stockbridge Bowl, one of the county's major water-recreation hubs and home to nearly 400 property owners, the weeds have been choking significant portions of the 372-acre lake. In Laurel Lake, co-managed by Lee and Lenox, the weeds are present, though less invasive. Still, they concern the Laurel Lake Preservation Association and the conservation commissions of both towns.

Both lakes harbor a rare, endangered snail under the ever-watchful eyes of MassWildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. Laurel Lake also has zebra mussels, an invasive species discovered there in 2009. Ironically, they help keep the lake clear, but watercraft have to be cleaned thoroughly to prevent their spread.

The Stockbridge Bowl Association has amassed a war chest of more than $3 million to do battle against the weeds. The bowl's health not only concerns the association led by its president, Richard Seltzer. The lakefront includes the popular town beach open to everyone, and private beaches used by Kripalu, Tanglewood staff and Camp Mah-kee-nac. Then, there's the annual Josh Billings Runaground — up to 500 kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards form part of the triathalon every September — this year on the 16th.

The bowl cleanup saga has had many twists and turns. The Bowl Association had a plan, backed by the town, for a deep dredging project that would allow a significant, 5.5-foot winter drawdown of the lake, designed to remove a silt buildup, freeze the weeds and retard their warm-weather growth.

Not so fast, said the state's Natural Heritage officials: You can't do that, because you'll kill the precious snails. Project off the table, much to the chagrin of town leaders and the Bowl Association.

Next step, town leaders decided, is to present a limited, shallow-dredging plan, either conventional or hydraulic, along with hydro-raking and a twice-annual harvesting of the weeds — like a crew cut, in a sense, though the weeds would grow back between the spring and autumn mechanical removal.

But we have a better idea, said the Bowl Association board, supported by the members. A herbicide branded as SONAR, used safely on lakes statewide, elsewhere in New England and nationally, would be the recommended solution, along with the shallow dredging plan and hydro-raking where water lilies choke homeowners' docks.

Nineteen lakes in Berkshire County have been using SONAR; big ones like Onota, Pontoosuc, Goose Pond and Otis Reservoir, and smaller ones like Richmond Pond and Prospect Lake in Egremont.

The state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been on board with SONAR for years. In 2002, a lake management study commissioned for Laurel Lake recommended chemical control for the nuisance weeds, calling fluridone — the ingredient in SONAR — "the most cost-effective and appropriate means by which to achieve the goal of reducing aquatic weed biomass."

The study noted that the low-dose use of the chemical gained federal approval in 1986 and had been widely used since then, with no harm to fish, mollusks, other water denizens and humans.

But there's no plan for Laurel Lake to use chemicals, said Lenox Conservation Commission Chairman Neal Carpenter, citing public opposition. Instead, a 3-foot drawdown is on the books for this winter to help control the weeds and kill the zebra mussels.

Meanwhile, MassWildlife has approved the herbicide treatment for Stockbridge Bowl, pointing out that the rare snails would be safe.

The Stockbridge Conservation Commission, and at least one member of the Select Board, are opposed to herbicides. A board statement prepared by Town Administrator Danielle Fillio and reviewed by Town Counsel J. Raymond Miyares was read by Selectman Terry Flynn at last Monday's meeting. It emphasized the shallow dredging approach, though the state will allow only a limited drawdown of 2.9 feet.

The statement also cited as an option mechanical weed-cutting in the spring and the fall — "strategic harvesting which has recently been used in other towns," once in the spring and once in the fall.

"This allows the weeds to grow very tall in the summer, which depletes their energy, enabling the fall cutting to stunt their growth," the board statement said.

Although MassWildlife raised the option of "spot treatment of certain areas and certain species with herbicides," the Select Board statement acknowledged, it did not suggest at any time that the use of herbicides "would be the only form of vegetation management that it would accept in approving any dredging project."

MassWildlife "never said it was a requirement that we take that approach," Flynn said, a line recommended by Miyares intended to clarify media reports quoting Seltzer, the board association president, on the state agency's position.

Asked for comment, Seltzer said in an email that "Tom French, head of NHESP [Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program], and Misty Ann Merrold, also from that agency, recommended the use of SONAR as safe for humans and the endangered snail; they did not require it."

Seltzer is eager to meet with two of the selectmen, the town's engineering firm, GZA GeoEnvironmental, and project overseer Gregg Wellencamp to seek a compromise solution. (To avoid a conflict of interest, Select Board Chairman Don Chabon can't participate, since he's a lakefront resident.)

The association plans to submit a notice of intent to the Conservation Commission and the state for herbicide treatment by SOLitude Lake Management, which treats at least 300 lakes statewide, as well as shallow dredging and hydro-raking. The commission would have three weeks to respond. The association hopes the herbicide can be applied next spring.

If the commission turns down the plan, the Bowl Association could file an appeal with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Ultimately, since the state owns the lake, it has the final say. The state's highest courts have overruled local boards in several towns that wanted to block herbicide treatments.

The best outcome, obviously, would be a meeting of the minds between town officials and the Bowl Association leadership. A solution that preserves the snails but destroys the weeds might not be as hard to achieve as it seems. Or so we hope.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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