Northampton City Council approves herbicide treatment to kill phragmites in Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area

Friday, July 11, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — In approving a grant Thursday night to pay for the use of herbicides on a batch of invasive plants at Fitzgerald Lake, the City Council at the same time threw its support behind the creation of a new task force to study reducing pesticide use throughout the city.

In an 8-1 vote, the council awarded the Broad Brook Coalition $2,450 in Community Preservation Act money to move ahead with a three-year plan to eradicate the non-native plant called phragmites from an acre of land in a nearly inaccessible part of the Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area. Ward 7 City Councilor Alisa Klein voted against the measure.

While most councilors agreed that the larger, long-term discussion about herbicide reduction is important to have, they were comfortable with Broad Brook’s plan in the short term to treat the phragmites, also known as common reed, with the herbicide Rodeo rather than attempting chemical-free alternatives.

Phragmites is a wetland plant imported from Europe that threatens critical habitats for native wildlife and plants.

“At a site that Broad Brook is talking about ... none of those ways are possible,” Ward 2 City Councilor Paul D. Spector said. “I hope my fellow councilors will support this measure. I do it knowing that generally I’m against pesticides and herbicides ... but there are times when I think it’s called for and this is one of those times.”

Klein disagreed, saying the main ingredient in Rodeo, glyphosate, is a “really serious and harmful chemical” that poses a danger to humans and wildlife.

“I think we as city councilors are stewards of the public health of the city, are stewards of environment,” Klein said. “As stewards, we have to think about not introducing poison into our water streams and conservation areas.”

Klein announced Thursday that her proposal to create a task force to explore pesticide reduction citywide will include department heads, two city councilors and other experts. Klein said she hopes the task force examines not only reducing use of pesticides, but also moves the city toward their eventual elimination.

Other councilors liked the task force idea. Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne L. LaBarge hopes that after Broad Brook’s application is complete the city can come up with some kind of management plant that spells out non-chemical alternatives to treat invasive plants.

“That would make me very happy,” LaBarge said.

The batch of phragmites was discovered in the northern reaches of the 800-acre conservation area in 2011 and has grown from a few stalks to thousands. It is the fourth such batch that has popped up within the conservation area. Three others were treated several years ago by Polatin Ecological Services, a Turner Falls company that demonstrated that tightly focused herbicide treatments could eradicate threatening plants without harming other plants and animals, said Robert Zimmermann, Broad Brook’s president. That same process will be used to get rid of the current stand.

Zimmermann said the treatment being proposed has been adopted by conservation agencies, state wildlife experts and others as an effective way to treat phragmites. Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of glyphosate as an aquatic herbicide. The chemical has low toxicity, can bind to soil and has a short half-life before it breaks down into harmless substances, he said.

“I don’t like pesticides but I want to avoid the hazards they (phragmites) create,” he said. “Expansion of invasive plants will do tremendous harm in ways we don’t even know.”

During a presentation before the council, organic land care consultant Bernadette Giblin of Northampton reiterated concerns she made at the last council meeting about the use of Rodeo. She said that in addition to the dangers to flora and fauna posed by glyphosate, this particular batch of phragmites is located near vernal pools and above aquifers and has the potential for regrowth.

“The truth is, this stuff (glyphosate) is moving in our water,” she said.

Giblin asked the council to review the latest research before it approved Broad Brook’s grant and give consideration to a number of non-chemical alternatives. In other parts of the country, phragmites is killed by hand, mowing, burning or drowning, but Giblin said progress is being made in the arena of biological controls in Michigan’s Great Lakes region. These controls would involve introducing insects that target phragmites.

Zimmermann argued that biological controls, while promising, are not close to being tested. He said the other alternatives are also not feasible for this site, which is hard to get to. Pulling the plant by hand would be nearly impossible because phragmites develops extensive root systems and it would be difficult to keep fragments of the plant from blowing into other areas, he said.

On the other hand, Mike Bald, who owns a Vermont company called Got Weeds? that specializes in organic weed control, said Thursday that he has had success in pulling phragmites by hand. The difficulty, he said, is ensuring the manpower to go back to the same site repeatedly.

Now that the council has approved the CPA request, Polatin will be hired to complete the three-year plan, with most of the work being done this year. Starting this month, the phragmites stalks will be cut by hand. The summer’s regrowth would then be treated this fall with Rodeo that would be mixed with another chemical, known as a surfactant, called Agri-Dex. The surfactant is a soap-like substance that allows the herbicide to penetrate a leaf. The herbicide would be applied to the phragmites through a “glove” technique in which a worker moistens a glove with the chemical, then wipes each stem and leaf of individual plants.