Is a deep dive on horizon to help aid ailing Stockbridge Bowl?

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STOCKBRIDGE — Members of the Conservation Commission and the public threw a big chill on a vegetation management plan proposed by the Stockbridge Bowl Association to use chemicals to save the 372-acre lake from turning into a weed-choked bog.

But at the end of a lengthy, often heated public hearing this week attended by more than 60 residents, a slight thaw emerged as both sides agreed to resume discussions Jan. 8 with testimony from several of the commission's expert consultants.

A senior environmental engineer and scientist from Solitude Lake Management, hired by the SBA for the proposed project, made a case Tuesday night for a series of herbicide treatments and other measures to control the rampant Eurasian milfoil weeds and other invasive species.

But longtime commission member Sally Underwood-Miller said that "throwing this poison in the lake is not a simple fix. We are arrogant beyond anything I can imagine to say that we have all the answers, because we don't. This is an untenable situation, it's too radical a solution, and we don't know enough to say yes." 

Selectman Terry Flynn blasted the herbicide treatment proposal as "a nuclear option" and argued that the association would welcome a commission rejection of the plan so the denial could be appealed to the state, which could override "several town boards' authority."

He contended that the association is trying to seize control of lake management rather than work closely with town government, as in the past. "That is egregious, and I hope all the people who belong to the association and maybe new members will do something to change that attitude," he said.

The association's board of directors voted last summer to support the chemical attack on the weeds. Its membership includes about 400 residents of lakefront and nearby property. A "Notice of Intent" filed with the Conservation Commission requires approval, but the state could overturn a commission rejection.

"The presence of Eurasian milfoil in any abundance is a concern in terms of habit and ecology," said Dominic Meringolo of Solitude, a national company with an office in Shrewsbury. Solitude has treated a half-dozen lakes in Berkshire County, hundreds of others statewide and several thousand across the country.

The company's survey of the state-owned Bowl last summer found invasive weeds in 64 percent of the lake's area near the shoreline, he said. Responding to commission members' questions, he acknowledged that 30 percent of the afflicted shorefront has a moderate or severe level of weed infestation.

Meringolo said that mechanical harvesting and hydro-raking efforts have failed to stem the tide of milfoil encroachment, and that MassWildlife vetoed an extensive and expensive association dredging and deep drawdown project to protect rare snails that inhabit the shoreline.

But Conservation Commission member Tom LaBelle interrupted the engineer's presentation to describe "18 years of herbicides used in the Bowl, 21,753 gallons and 38,800 pounds between 1960 and 1978. After all that, the milfoil problem was worse."

Meringolo said that those herbicides are no longer used. "We've come a long way in regulations at the EPA; there have been great strides in environmental protection since those decades," he said.

But commission member John Hart said "the addition of another chemical to what's already at the bottom of the lake might not be such a great idea."

The current proposal for using the herbicide fluridone (branded as Sonar) has been endorsed by the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said attorney Elisabeth Goodman of Cain, Hibbard & Myers, representing the association. The state Department of Agriculture also supports a fluridone treatment.

MassWildlife's Dec. 7 letter to association President Richard Seltzer offers conditional approval of a limited one-season herbicide treatment next summer, after submission of a detailed written treatment plan, but any adverse effects on state-protected rare snails must be avoided. 

A follow-up chemical application proposed for next summer using ProcellaCOR, a newer herbicide, is not yet approved by MassWildlife, and Goodman said that aspect of the plan would be withdrawn.

Any additional fluridone applications beyond next summer or other chemical treatment, as well as as diver-assisted suction and hand-harvesting are not approved, pending additional information, the division's letter stated. 

MassWildlife's Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program also urged the association to develop and submit "a cohesive management plan that includes all proposed activities aimed at controlling milfoil, nuisance aquatic plants" and/or algae species.

"We're looking to eliminate as much of the Eurasian milfoil as possible during the year of treatment," said Meringolo, the Solitude engineer. "But obviously, we're expecting regrowth over a period of time."

But under intense questioning by commission member LaBelle, Meringolo said that "once you have an invasive plant in your lake, you have it forever unless you were super lucky and able to catch it when the first plant took root."

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"An integrated approach using all the tools is the only real way for long-term sustainable success," he said. "What we're trying to do with the fluridone treatment is to manage this large infestation down to a level where we can start to look at nonchemical techniques. The whole-lake treatment is the way to go."

Meringolo said that limited "spot treatment," pinpointing only the most intense areas of weed growth, as advocated by several Conservation Commission members, would make overall lake management "less effective."

"I can see voting for a highly-targeted application in certain parts," said member Patrick White. "I just think it's reckless to go all in. This isn't a poker game."

As for using a weed harvester, as Stockbridge has for decades, Meringolo said that the technique offers "short-term relief" from milfoil weeds in limited recreation areas, but overall worsens the infestation.

LaBelle encountered some pushback when he cited studies by the U.S. Forestry Service showing potential toxic hazards from exposure to "very large, worst-case" quantities of herbicides in accidental spills, though fluridone had not been tested to assess risks.

"That issue is not before this board or the responsibility of Solitude to answer," said attorney Goodman, pointing out that the legally permitted dosage of fluridone proposed for the lake is registered with state and federal agencies.

"If this board already has determined that under no circumstances will any herbicide ever be permitted to be used in Stockbridge Bowl then let's vote tonight to deny this application," she told LaBelle. "That would be acceptable to my client if that is your decision."

LaBelle denied any intention to immediately block the chemical treatment but insisted that users of the lake should be made aware of the concerns he had raised.

Seltzer, the association president, said that fluridone has been used "in over 10,000 lakes, reservoirs and ponds across the country, without any of the reported injuries to mammals." He said Richmond Pond, Onota and Pontoosuc lakes, Goose Pond and Otis Reservoir have been treated with the chemical without adverse effects.

Since Mass Wildlife shot down a previous SBA plan for dredging and a deep drawdown to wipe out weeds, Seltzer said, the herbicide "plan B" approach "would be a legitimate, effective way to control milfoil on the lake. Fluridone has stood the test of time, and repeated applications have shown that it is safe."

But LaBelle said that negative health impacts from chemicals might not emerge for 20 or 30 years after they are used.

Meringolo also said that fluridone requires no restrictions on swimming, boating and fishing, though he noted that Solitude Lake Management recommends a day-of-treatment restriction "as an extra precaution and safety concern when a treatment boat is going around the lake, though it's not necessary or required."

Fluridone restrictions include "no application within a quarter mile of a drinking water source (on the day of the treatment), and no use of treated water for irrigation within 30 days of the treatment," according to the association's Notice of Intent application.

When asked whether fluridone treatment could cause new outbreaks of the toxic bloom that shut down lake recreation late last summer, Meringolo said that controlling milfoil weeds would not worsen toxic cyanobacteria algae outbreaks.

As president of the town's Board of Health, Dr. Charles Kenny called for "a combined effort to preserve the health and integrity" of the lake. He stressed that last summer's toxic algae bloom was a game changer, completely altering "the priorities and goals we need to put in place."

He called the weed invasion "a perennial nuisance" the town must deal with, but the toxic algae was "a wildlife and public safety hazard, the dangers of which should not be underestimated."

And Kenny demanded "due diligence to understand what caused and what could prevent another bloom" that can sicken humans and pets while killing wildlife, including fish, and jeopardizing "multiple endangered species that exist in the Bowl."

He asked the Stockbridge Bowl Association to withdraw its herbicide treatment plan and join a Board of Health task force "so action can be taken on all needed fronts" to explore ways to prevent more dangerous algae outbreaks.

Otherwise, he urged the Conservation Commission to prohibit the chemical treatment proposed for the lake. 

As the meeting ended after extensive public debate, the association agreed to a commission proposal to continue the discussion at the next meeting, at 7 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Town Offices, with several of the commission's expert consultants on hand. 

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


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