Click photo to enlarge
Boat monitor Bill Sitzer keeps watch as boaters enjoy Onota Lake. Sitzer is part of the city’s new zebra mussel prevention program.
Thursday June 3, 2010

PITTSFIELD -- Bill Sitzer of Lenox was well aware of zebra mussels before the invasive species were detected in Berkshire County -- Laurel Lake in Lee -- last summer.

The 21-year-old senior at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., is majoring in environmental studies. The college isn't far from the St. Lawrence River, which has been infested with the destructive mollusks since the mid-1990s.

So when Pittsfield was looking to hire boat ramp monitors this summer to help prevent the spread of zebra mussels to Pontoosuc and Onota lakes, Sitzer jumped at the chance to get a head start on his career.

"I'm interested in invasive species and want to help the city deal with the issue," said Sitzer, who began his monitoring job Memorial Day weekend.

"People liked the idea of boat ramp monitors," he said. "I found a lot of people who regularly visit Pontoosuc and Onota who know to keep their boats decontaminated."

Sitzer and the two other college students Pittsfield has hired will work with two state-paid boat ramp monitors and local volunteers to eventually provide daily coverage from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the city's two boat ramps. Now through Labor Day, the monitors will make sure boats being launched haven't been in infested waters or, if so, have been cleaned.

In addition, two full-time state monitors will be stationed at Laurel Lake, which state environmental officials closed last summer to prevent zebra mussels from spreading. Stockbridge Bowl, Lake Buel in Monterey, Cheshire Reservoir and Richmond Pond each will share a state-funded monitor.

Zebra mussels were first discovered in the Great Lakes region in 1988 and spread to the Mississippi River and Ohio River valley. The menacing mollusks have already infested many lakes in New York and northwestern Vermont. They reproduce rapidly and can clog man-made structures like pipes, dams and docks. Their sharp edges are also hazardous to people walking or swimming with bare feet.

Since zebra mussels were initially discovered in Laurel Lake last July, they've spread downstream to Laurel Brook and the Housatonic River as far south as Stockbridge. Since then, 10 local water bodies have been tagged by the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation as being at high risk of infestation.

Pittsfield's Parks Manager James McGrath said the city's investment of $10,000 from its lake management funds to hire boat ramp monitors is worth protecting Pontoosuc and Onota.

"[The lakes] are not only a Pittsfield resource, but a county and regional resource too," said McGrath. "We're also trying to protect a critical part of our economy."

He said a total of 10,000 to 15,000 boats are launched every summer at Pontoosuc and Onota.

Last July, the city and lake residents quickly organized an all-volunteer effort for boat ramp monitoring after zebra mussels were found in Laurel Lake. However, relying on volunteers for an entire summer wouldn't be feasible, according to Robert Race, president of Lake Onota Preservation Association.

"You can't keep volunteer groups doing that forever," Race said. "We'll fill in the gaps when we can with volunteers."

Race said lake residents will soon receive a letter with the state brochure reminding them they too should keep their watercraft free of zebra mussels before placing them in Onota Lake.

Local and state officials said thoroughly cleaning one's boat -- especially after being in infested waters -- can kill any zebra mussel contamination. The two recognized boat washing facilities in the Berkshires are on Main Street in Stockbridge and 730 W. Housatonic St. in Pittsfield. Ed Vella, owner of V's Car Wash, said the pair of boat washing stations he recently opened got plenty of use over the holiday weekend.

"I have someone who lives next door to the car wash monitoring the facility and he saw a lot of people with boats, canoes and rafts using it," Vella said. "I expect certain people will be contentious about keeping their boats clean."

While the Stockbridge boat wash is free thanks to an $18,000 state grant, Vella spent his own money to install his boat washing system which costs $2.50 per wash. It is open daily.

"I applaud [Vella] for his effort," said Race. "I hope he gets his money back, but we can't make people go there."

To reach Dick Lindsay: rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6233.