Zebra mussels in the river

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LEE -- Zebra mussels have been detected in the Housatonic River as far as Stockbridge and 10 water bodies in the region are at a high risk for infestation, according to a report issued this week by the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The report measured the invasive species' threat to local bodies of water, and was commissioned by the state after zebra mussels were discovered in Laurel Lake in July. The report estimates zebra mussels have been in Laurel Lake for between two and three years, and that zebra mussels are now "firmly established" there.

And while the mollusks' long-term success at the lake remains uncertain, the report states it would be impractical to take measures to eliminate the population. Once they gain a foothold, zebra mussels can overtake an ecosystem, reproducing rapidly, and clogging man-made structures like pipes, dams and docks.

Laurel Lake is listed among nine other water bodies not currently infested where high calcium and pH levels create the right environment for zebra mussels to spawn and thrive.

In addition to the zebra mussels in Laurel Lake, the assessment noted the discovery of adult zebra mussels in Laurel Brook and the Housatonic River as far south as Stockbridge, located downstream of the lake.

"It's not a good picture, they're probably here to stay" said Dennis Regan, director of the Housatonic Valley Association. "The condition that they need -- apparently, we have it on the Housatonic River."

The overall threat of the mussels on the river remains uncertain, the report states. However, the limited studies of zebra mussels in small rivers suggest the population may never reach the levels typically found in lakes.

The report, prepared by Biodrawversity LLC, indicated the mussels likely entered the river via two sources -- Laurel Brook and the broken water pipe that runs from Laurel Lake to the Eagle Mill. Adult zebra mussels were found along a half-mile reach downstream of Laurel Brook, a location 0.9 miles downstream of Laurel Brook, and a location in Stockbridge 6.96 miles downstream from the brook.

Biodrawversity conducted its fieldwork for the report between Sept. 8 and Oct. 23.

“The survey results give us another layer of information to help the Zebra Mussel Task Force make recommendations about how to address the threat of these invasive species before the boating season begins next year,” said Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “The Task Force, which holds its first meeting today, will use this information to discuss topics including public education, boat decontamination, boating regulations, and ongoing monitoring of waterways.”

The report looked at the susceptibility of other local waterways to zebra mussel colonization, breaking them down into three categories -- low, medium and high risk. Those determined to be at high risk included the Cheshire Reservoir, Housatonic River (Great Barrington to Pittsfield), Lake Buel, Lake Mansfield, Laurel Lake, Onota Lake, Pontoosuc Lake, Prospect Lake, Richmond Pond and Stockbridge Bowl.

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"The more water bodies around here that are impacted by zebra mussels, the higher the probability that our city lakes would become infested," said Jim McGrath, Pittsfield park open space and natural resource program manager. He said the city is "very concerned" about a possible infestation at Onota and Pontoosuc lakes.

McGrath echoed the statements of George Shippey, a Stockbridge selectman who lives on Stockbridge Bowl, saying more needs to be done to educate and prevent further spread of the mussels.

This report "ratchets up the urgency of the zebra mussel problem," said Shippey. "It's very clear to me that the effort for the next season has to be a combination of lake monitoring at the boat ramps and a boat-washing facility."

The zebra mussels are introduced from one body of water to another typically by recreational boats or equipment.

Meanwhile, the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs' zebra mussel task force will meet for the first time today. The group will work to devise a statewide policy on the matter, with plans expected to be ready by April 1.

But some, like John Hickey, president of The Lakes and Ponds Association of Western Massachusetts, said more needs to be done.

"The best way to characterize the state's response to this whole zebra mussel thing has been, in a phrase, ‘A day late and a dollar short,'" said Hickey. He noted it took a week for the state to close the Laurel Lake boat ramp after the discovery of the invasive species and their current inaction on a possible drawdown of the lake.

The Laurel Lake Preservation Association will petition the Lenox and Lee conservation commissions on Thursday for an emergency drawdown of the lake, an attempt to freeze and kill as many of the zebra mussels as possible.

The group has also petitioned Natural Heritage and the Department of Environmental Protection on the matter, as the action can prevent further spreading of the mollusks in the lake and beyond, according to Mark Alimansky, the Laurel Lake Preservation Association president.

"Doing nothing would be a tragedy," said Alimansky, "when we can do it at this point in time."

To reach Trevor Jones: tjones@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 528-3660.


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