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Stockbridge Bowl: From dispute to agreement

Over the past 75 years, the Bowl has become choked with weeds and sediment. After disagreements, the Town and the Stockbridge Bowl Association have come up with a plan to remedy the situation.

If you’ve only seen bits and snatches of the unending debate about Stockbridge Bowl, you might think the Town of Stockbridge and the Stockbridge Bowl Association (SBA) are Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets, the two families of “Romeo and Juliet,” riven by an ancient grudge.

Not so. Instead, the two sides have worked cooperatively for decades, because both are committed to preserving Stockbridge Bowl and restoring its health. The Bowl is not only an aesthetic and recreational resource, it is vital to the Town’s tax base, as well as to the institutions surrounding and enjoying the lake, including Tanglewood, Kripalu, Camp Mah-Kee-Nac, and Canyon Ranch.

The SBA has contributed funds toward keeping zebra mussels from invading the lake, and funded aquatic plant surveys and engineering studies to determine the sources of silt in the lake. The SBA also maintains its properties, Bullard Woods and Kwuniikwat Island, for public use. This past year, the Town helped pay for a new paved driveway into Bullard Woods with Community Preservation funds.

Issues

Over the past 75 years, Stockbridge Bowl, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has become choked with the invasive weed Eurasian water milfoil. Sedimentation has become the lake’s second major problem and impacted docks. The third? Weeds.

An impacted dock on Stockbridge Bowl. Photo courtesy Stockbridge Bowl Association

Weeds

In the past, the Town used a mechanical harvester to cut weed stems, several feet below the surface, to a level where they wouldn’t interfere with recreational use of the lake. The harvester also cleared a path through the tangle of lily pads behind Kwuniikwat Island and down the outlet. Each of these “haircuts” was temporarily effective, but resources to keep the harvester functioning were not always available. Last year, there was no harvesting for the first time in decades because the Town misunderstood the state regulations.

M. lustrica image courtesy fwgna.org

The SBA developed a plan to restore the lake to health. It included a drawdown, dredging, and hydro-raking. The SBA’s initial proposal of a 5.5-foot winter drawdown was approved by the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (DFW) but rejected (although previously accepted) by the MassWildlife’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). The winter drawdown would have frozen and killed the roots of the milfoil near shore. The NHESP claimed the drawdown could harm Marstonia lustrica, an endangered snail living in the Bowl. It should be noted that this particular snail lives in abundance in seven states west of the Berkshires but is considered endangered in Massachusetts because it currently lives only in Stockbridge Bowl and Laurel Lake.

Instead of a drawdown, the NHESP recommended the SBA use fluridone, a narrow-spectrum herbicide that specifically targets milfoil. Fluridone has been used safely for over 30 years in thousands of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs nationwide, including 20 lakes in Massachusetts.

In 2018, the SBA filed a Notice of Intent with the Stockbridge Conservation Commission (ConComm), the DFW, and the NHESP. The ConComm hired Dr. Robert Kortmann, a limnologist (specialist in the study of inland water systems) to provide scientific evidence of fluridone’s safety. The NHESP and the DFW gave written approval, but the ConComm rejected the application, purportedly based on the Town’s bylaws and the state’s Wetlands Protection Act.

The ConComm believed no herbicide should ever be used in Stockbridge Bowl and sought to enforce a decades-old order prohibiting the use of herbicides in the lake “in perpetuity.” To the SBA and many in Stockbridge, “perpetuity” hadn’t envisioned the Bowl on its way to becoming a bog. Moreover, better, safer herbicides have been developed over the past 50 years, leading to their safe use in hundreds of Massachusetts lakes including Goose Pond, Onota Lake, Pontoosuc Lake, Richmond Pond, Laurel Lake, Otis Reservoir, and Prospect Park.

Boat motor woes caused by milfoil on the Bowl. Photo courtesy SBA

Because the ConComm rejected the application, the SBA had to appeal to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to overcome the wetlands rejection. For the bylaws rejection, the SBA needed to appeal to the court. The Massachusetts Superior Court ruled for the SBA.

The judge found that the Town’s findings “lacked substantial evidence,” and that the Commission’s disregarding the opinion of its own expert, Dr. Kortmann, was “rather disingenuous.” The judge ordered the ConComm to approve the SBA project. As for the wetlands appeal, the DEP also overruled the Commission, but required the SBA to adopt a four-year protocol to test fluridone in the lake.

Given these two favorable rulings, the SBA was ready to move forward with testing fluridone in preparation for using it to remediate the milfoil problem. The ConComm decided not to appeal the judge’s decision, so the two sides seemed to have reached an agreement.

The agreement, however, didn’t last. The Commission, in violation of the court order, went on to add 20 new conditions for testing fluridone in the lake. The SBA notified the Town that it would be compelled to return to court. Once again, the judge ruled in the SBA’s favor, citing the ConComm for contempt of court. He ordered the Town to cover the legal expenses the SBA had incurred in seeking the contempt order.

Weeds converging on Stockbridge Bowl. Photo courtesy Stockbridge Bowl Association

The judge asked that the SBA meet the requirements the DEP issued for testing fluridone. The DEP wanted two test patches on the lake, which would require the SBA to hire a diver to hand count the stems of milfoil and native plants in those patches before applying fluridone, and then again a year later, to ensure the treatment didn’t harm native plants. No other lake in the state has faced this requirement.

In the meantime, the milfoil, which varies from year to year in quantity and location, had a minimal presence in the summer of 2020. Shakespeare would have loved the irony of this turn of events. The SBA offered to delay the testing for another year. Depending on the results of testing, the entire lake could be treated in the spring of 2024.

The Town reimbursed the SBA $18,500 for its legal fees in pursuing the contempt order. As a gesture of goodwill, the SBA will return those funds to the Town for use in restoring and improving the deteriorated Town Beach.

Dredging

This is not where the story ends. A half-century buildup of sediment clogs the Lily Brook holding pond and the outlet. The Town has hired a contractor to estimate the cost of dredging a channel from Kwuniikwat Island down the outlet, as well as in front of the Town Beach and in the clogged Lily Brook holding pond. The NHESP will weigh in.

A hydro-raking machine. Photo courtesy Foster’s Pond Corp.

Hydro-raking

The lily pads choking the outlet and blocking many docks have to be pulled up by the roots. The SBA had begun hydro-raking, when the ConComm halted the work. The Commission claimed the work did not conform with current rules. The DEP has told the Commission to overhaul its rules. The harvester, which used to clear a channel through the lily pads, was not in use during the 2020 season, so the problem became much worse.

Shakespeare doesn’t tell us how long the ancient grudge between the Montagues and the Capulets had gone on before the story of Romeo and Juliet began, but the Town of Stockbridge and the SBA, fortunately, have had a dispute of much shorter duration, one that hasn’t ended in tragedy. In spite of the daunting problems ahead, Stockbridge now has a Stewardship Committee, comprised of representatives from the SBA and several Town boards and committees. The Stewardship Committee plans to attack lake management issues cooperatively.

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