Almanac

News - June 29, 2011

Activists protest spraying of weeds in Menlo Park

by Sandy Brundage

Weeds, there's no getting away from them. But Menlo Park does its best to kill weeds by dousing the plants with herbicide, an approach some call unnecessary.

The city began planning its annual summer spraying in June. Bay Area resident Nancy Arbuckle, who participates in a national effort to restore bluebird populations to urban areas, asked Menlo Park to reconsider.

In an email to city officials on June 21, Ms. Arbuckle wrote that nesting boxes in city parks are now brimming with blue eggs and hatchlings. While weeds don't detract from park enjoyment, spraying does by endangering the wildlife. She also said that children and pets share the risk of exposure.

Assistant Director of Public Works Ruben Nino responded by saying the city takes pesticide safety seriously, posts signs to warn visitors not to enter the parks for 12 hours post-application, and waits until weather conditions discourage spray drift. According to Mr. Nino, the herbicide used, turflon ester, ranks in the next-to-last category of toxicity.

Ms. Arbuckle said the signs are easy to overlook. "The notion of 'weeds' is an outdated one," she told Mr. Nino. "Parks are for playing, picnicking, and enhanced quality of life, all of which are undermined by herbicide use."

Vice Mayor Kirsten Keith is researching policies in other cities. "I would appreciate hearing both positive and negative information from other cities that have tried using alternatives, or have stopped using toxic products altogether," she said. "If there is a non-toxic way to control weeds that is cost effective, I think it would benefit the residents of Menlo Park to use non-toxic products on our public spaces."

The parks superintendent for San Rafael, Vern Doughty, said his city adopted a policy limiting herbicide use whenever possible, but still sprays as needed. He told Ms. Keith that reduced staffing, coupled with the ineffectiveness of alternative herbicides like clove oil, which also cost more, make traditional herbicides one of the city's most effective tools.

Former mayor Steve Schmidt hopes Menlo Park looks at mowing as an efficient alternative to broadcast herbicide spraying. "What I hear from city staff is that spraying saves a lot of money," he said. "I don't think they actually think it through. A case in point is Sand Hill Road. They sprayed it, but it still looks terrible and they're going to have to mow it anyway."

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