The weed came suddenly to Lake Cochituate, its feathery tentacles slithering along the lake floor, choking out native plants and thickening the water.
NATICK, Mass. − The weed came suddenly to Lake Cochituate, its feathery tentacles slithering along the lake floor, choking out native plants and thickening the water. The plant is called Eurasian milfoil, and it is a brassy trespasser that expands like an organism straight out of science fiction: The more it is chopped apart, the more it spreads. When bits of the weed are pulled or cut off, they sprout roots and grow into new plants. Milfoil has sneaked into lakes and ponds across Massachusetts, often growing so thick that fish have trouble swimming, to say nothing of people.
The people who live near Lake Cochituate, one of the state's largest recreational lakes, are united on one thing: They want the watery invader annihilated. But more than two years after the weed was discovered in the lake, they cannot agree on how to do it.
The state, which owns and manages the lake, has proposed eradicating the weed with two kinds of herbicides. But some residents, who fear that the chemicals will pollute the water where their children swim and contaminate the town's groundwater, have hired a lawyer and are fighting the plan. They argue that the state should first unleash a nonchemical attack, hand-pulling the weeds or introducing a natural predator to devour milfoil.
The Lake Cochituate case is being watched carefully in Massachusetts, where dozens of communities are trying to find a way to stop the spread of the weed, which was first discovered in this country in a Washington, D.C., pond in 1942 and has since spread to nearly every state.
Chemical treatment "destroys what is natural that you come to appreciate when you come to a lake, not a swimming pool," said Shirley Brown, a retired nurse who has lived along the lake for nearly 40 years and who opposes the use of herbicides.
Another, larger group of residents, called Save Our Shores, has arisen to fight the appeal. They worry that the milfoil will gobble up more of the lake while the battle over how to kill it simmers. One of the group's members, Bill Frantzen, argues that the herbicides proposed are not dangerous.
"This area is so beautiful," he said. "It's such a treasure. It will truly turn into a swamp if we don't treat it."
Brown and others fighting the use of herbicides are now contesting the milfoil plan of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the lake. No date has been set on their hearing with a state administrative law judge. If they lose, they say, they have yet to decide whether they will take their case to court.
In Stow, the application of another herbicide to kill milfoil was halted by a group of residents who joined forces with the Toxics Action Center of Boston and threatened to sue. The organization argued that state and local officials needed a federal pollution permit to use the chemical.
Although officials disagreed, they dropped plans to spread the chemical, saying they did not want to be vulnerable to a lawsuit.
The Natick residents protesting the herbicides argue that applying chemicals to the lake could pollute local drinking water. They cite a study from the US Geological Survey suggesting that the lake contributes at least 1 million gallons of water each day to the town's wells. And they worry about direct contact between the chemicals and the people who swim in the lake. In addition to the people who live along the lakeshore, an estimated 200,000 people visit the state park each year.
The lawyer for the opponents of herbicides, Martin E. Levin, cites a 2000 European Commission report that concluded that diquat one of the proposed chemicals, poses an unacceptable risk to other plants and fish.
One of their supporters is Lili Scheider, who has helped fight herbicides in Wayland's Dudley Pond, where chemicals have been applied often in the past decade. The herbicides kill all the plants in the pond, she said, but the milfoil eventually grows back.
"We still have a problem," she said. "It doesn't solve the problem."
Wayland officials recently received a grant to introduce a kind of carp -- sterile, so that the fish will not reproduce and take over the pond themselves -- that feeds on milfoil. Other states have used the carp to control milfoil with mixed success.
Ann Karnofsky, who says she spends two hours each day walking the shores of Lake Cochituate with her dogs, was one of the earliest opponents of the herbicides. When she heard that the state planned to use chemicals, she headed to Natick's Town Hall and scribbled a handwritten appeal to the plan.
"I, myself, do not want to be affected by poisonous chemicals in any way," she said. "I'm a vegan. I eat organic. I just live a very healthful life very close to nature here, and my bristles went up."
But state officials say they have not recorded any health problems from the herbicides used elsewhere to fight milfoil. Frantzen, of Save Our Shores, said he believes officials who say the chemicals are safe.
"There's no documented problems on using the herbicide," he said. "The only problem is with people that keep appealing. It's just their opinion and their fear."
Frantzen contends that the real pollution threat to the lake is drainage from nearby neighborhoods and highways, including the Massachusetts Turnpike and Route 9.
"The appealers are complaining about the vanilla extract that's already in a toxic milkshake," he said.
Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News