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Quabbin Reservoir closed to boaters amid zebra mussel concerns

By Milton J. Valencia
Globe Staff / July 15, 2009
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The menacing zebra mussel species that has taken over a Berkshires lake has been found in a stream that feeds into the Housatonic River in Western Massachusetts, amplifying fears that the invasive freshwater mollusk could contaminate drinking water supplies and other waterways throughout the state.

To prevent further spreading, state environmental officials Wednesday banned private recreational boating at the Quabbin Reservoir, a Boston source of drinking water and one of the state’s most prime fishing areas.

Richard K. Sullivan, commissioner of the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, said yesterday that the move was a precaution but was needed considering the zebra mussel’s threat of taking over lakes and ponds throughout the state. The mussels and their larvae have the ability to cling to boats and spread from pond to pond. Already the species, which has ravaged the Great Lakes, has invaded the Laurel Lake in the Berkshires.

State officials say they have little recourse in stopping the eventual spread of the mussel into the Housatonic. But given the continuous threat of the invasive mussel that can wipe out native aquatic life, clog water intake pipes, and foul drinking water supplies, an emergency action plan has been put into place to stop it from spreading to waterways elsewhere, particularly the Quabbin.

"Given the fact that we ware talking about our public drinking water supply, the spread of the mussel could have significant impact to the infrastructure and ecology there,’’ Sullivan said. ‘‘We’re still respecting the right to public access, but just balancing that with the need to protect our drinking water supply.’’

The Department of Conservation and Recreation will maintain a rental boat fleet at the reservoir, allowing some sort of boating and fishing to continue. But the private boat ramps at the reservoir will remain closed for at least 45 days, until the state can design a way to regulate private boating and make sure all boats that enter the water are cleansed.

Sullivan said a long-term plan could include an official prohibition of private boats on the water, or a system that will guarantee that any boat brought to the reservoir has been properly decontaminated.

The move to close the reservoir and start a boater education plan on ways to properly cleanse boats — including kayaks and canoes — is part of a 2005 master plan that was drafted when the threat of the zebra mussel spreading here was first realized.

Originally from Russia, the mollusks were first found in 1988 in Lake St. Clair, between Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Since then, they have ravaged the ecosystems of the Great Lakes and spread to waterways in Connecticut and New York.

Last week, the mussel was discovered in the 175-acre Laurel Lake in Lee and was found to be thriving days later. Already, its presence has alarmed boaters, environmentalists, and state officials who realize the threat of spreading.

The mussel is the poster child for a foreign species that wreak havoc on an environment, altering aquatic species and habitats.

Power and steel plants and other businesses that use water sources spend millions of dollars each year in the Great Lakes region chemically treating or retooling pipes to prevent mussel buildup.

Sullivan said there is no known threat to the Quabbin drinking water. While the mussel has thrived in the Laurel Lake because of its nonacidic makeup and high calcium levels, the reservoir does not provide the same biochemical advantages. Still, the move was a precaution given the threat of the species, and was welcomed by environmental groups who said the threat of the species is serious enough to ban even recreational boating.

Jack Hickey, of the Lakes and Ponds Association of Western Massachusetts, said the state should consider closing all boat ramps, particularly those in Massachusetts, until a plan to stop the spread can be developed. Doing so would alert boaters to the seriousness of the threat and the need to properly cleanse vessels, including kayaks.

"The Quabbin is pretty close to our last wilderness in Massachusetts and I think we should keep it that way,’’ said Paul Godfrey, a member of the Friends of Quabbin Inc., a nonprofit group. ‘‘Zebra mussels are an incredible threat to that place. They tend to clog up pipes, and there are a lot of them — all the way to Boston.’’

Milton Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.