Patrick White: A balanced compromise for Stockbridge Bowl

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STOCKBRIDGE — I serve on the boards of the Stockbridge Conservation Commission and Stockbridge Bowl Association. I'd like to share some thoughts on the use of herbicide in Stockbridge Bowl.

As a relatively new member of SBA board, I've been impressed by these volunteers' dedication. The SBA is focused on improving lake conditions. It augments taxpayers' considerable funding with their own substantial efforts. The ConComm and the SBA worked together to add a second harvester to the Bowl, for example.

It is true that the ConComm and the SBA have strong disagreement over the use of herbicide, but friends can disagree. There are no villains in this debate.

As a volunteer harvester operator, I've observed, at least so far, relatively little invasive milfoil. Milfoil is a small part of the weed problem frustrating lake users.

Solitude, the dominant company in the business of lake herbicides, wrote the proposal to use it in Stockbridge Bowl, submitting it as an "ecological restoration." This proposal was specifically written to narrowly address invasive milfoil. The solution proposed, the one that would "restore" the lake, is the application of the broad-spectrum herbicide fluridone, a blunt-force tool that can kill natives and invasives alike.

While it's not fair to compare fluridone to Round Up, positioning fluridone as an ecological restoration is unreasonable. It's about controlling nuisance vegetation of all stripes. It has, in my opinion, relatively little to do with improving or restoring the ecology of the lake. The milfoil is a small part of the problem, yet it is the only weed that can be used to justify an ecological restoration to state regulators.

GOING FORWARD

I remain concerned about Solitude's judgment. It applied herbicide to Richmond Pond the Friday of the heatwave, and had planned to apply it to Pontoosuc, which was scrapped after a resident complained to the Department of Environmental Protection. Herbicide application in the height of a summer heatwave, where the volume of mass is high and where oxygen loss can be acute due to fast decomposition, can cause immense damage to fisheries.

So how to proceed? Here's my take.

First, it's reasonable that boating enthusiasts want relief. However, recreational use is much more than boating.

I met with the Berkshire County League of Sportsmen in January, 17 presidents of local hunting and fishing groups that represent 4,700 Berkshire County members. These presidents unanimously voted to oppose herbicide because they've seen its negative impact on fish populations.

Massachusetts conducts Biological Fish Surveys, applying electric current to the water, which temporarily brings fish to the surface. The state counts the fish to analyze the populations by species. I analyzed these counts for Stockbridge Bowl and compared them to larger Pontoosuc and Onota (both treated with herbicide).

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There were roughly 10 times as many fish in the Stockbridge Bowl as in those other two lakes.

One can't determine causation based on such a simplistic analysis, but there are, nevertheless, a lot more fish in the Bowl than in the treated lakes. Less vegetation means fewer places to lay eggs and fewer places to hide from predators.

We shouldn't advocate a solution that prioritizes one form of recreation over the other, not if we can solve the problem while accommodating both.

Mass Audubon has an excellent policy on pesticides (herbicides are a kind of pesticide):

"Mass Audubon recognizes that while there are beneficial uses for pesticides, damage to the environment and human health may result from the indiscriminate, improper, or excessive use of pesticides. Since we do not fully understand the long-term sub-lethal effects of pesticides, damage to the environment is possible with some pesticides even if they are used according to approved protocols. For these reasons, Mass Audubon's policy is to limit the use of pesticides only to address significant ecological management issues in support of clearly defined management goals, threats to public health and safety, and other applications where reasonable alternatives do not exist."

The question is, do reasonable alternatives exist?

The town and the SBA are in the process of gaining a permit to dredge a path through the outlet. This will improve the boating channel.

Additionally, SBA is planning to hydro-rake lily pads this fall (it's already permitted). This should provide multi-year relief around docks.

The town recently added a second harvester. Folks are saying that the town has achieved significant improvements with this increase, and that's before the hydro-raking and dredging. Individuals can help control the problem by eliminating the use of fertilizers and regularly pumping septic systems. Fewer nutrients means fewer weeds.

TOOL OF LAST RESORT

Do these methods of controlling nuisance vegetation constitute a reasonable alternative to herbicide? There's only one way to know the answer to this: try them. We should do just that, see if hydro-raking, dredging, harvesting and education together can solve the problem. If so, there will be no need for the tool of last resort, herbicides. We can't — and shouldn't — put the cart before the horse.

The herbicide litigation is a tremendous expense to both the town and the SBA, with thousands spent. I believe the SBA and the town, as part of a settlement, should agree to fund both harvesters in 2020, along with lake monitoring, dredging, hydro-raking and education. The parties should then evaluate the effectiveness of these efforts in 2021 or 2022 to determine if they are adequate. If not, other solutions, including herbicide, could be considered.

This is a balanced compromise that provides boating enthusiasts with relief, respects the desires of fishermen and conservationists, and stops the diversion of money from lake management to lawyers.


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