County supervisors ban most roadside herbicide spraying
County residents who have been trying since 2006 to convince San Mateo County supervisors to find non-chemical ways to kill weeds were celebrating on March 13 after the supervisors voted to end roadside broadcast herbicide spraying.
The resolution, which passed 4-0 with Supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson absent, bans broadcast spraying by the county everywhere except at its two airports, but allows targeted spraying of invasive plants.
"We've waited for this since 2006," said La Honda area resident Patty Mayall, who has led the fight against herbicide spraying. Broadcast spraying "kills everything, not just the invasives, but natives," she said at the March 13 Board of Supervisors meeting.
The fight to end roadside spraying is not completely over, however. While the California Department of Transportation has told the neighbors in the past that it does not spray in counties where broadcast spraying has been banned, for now, Caltrans says it will spray "if we have issues such as weeds that are impeding safety devices, fire danger, site distances, noxious weeds, etc.," said spokeswoman Gidget Navarro. But Caltrans will give notice before a spray is applied, she added.
According to Patty Clary, executive director of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Caltrans will stop spraying if asked to do so by the Board of Supervisors, not just by residents.
"Caltrans has quit spraying roadsides in cities and counties where the local government has stopped its own roadside spraying," Ms. Clary said. "But, generally, it took a separate vote of the governing body requesting that Caltrans stop spraying roadsides within its jurisdiction to bring that about."
The county supervisors' March 13 vote came despite a report from the county's public works director saying that trying to control weeds without spraying herbicides could cost the county up to $800,000 a year.
But department staff needs to "really think outside the box here," Supervisor Dave Pine said. "We should put a challenge to the department of public works that they should do as much as they possibly can with their budget."
"The risk of chemicals is a great concern to me," he said. "There's been tremendous growth in childhood neurological disorders, which more and more are being tied to chemicals."
"I think the time has come," Supervisor Adrienne Tissier said. "It's time for us to take that leap to eliminate broadcast spraying."
Supervisor Carole Groom said the ban is in line with other county efforts to improve public health. "We know that spraying can increase the chances of asthma; that children and seniors who have asthma are deeply affected by chemicals in the air," she said. "I think that's another reason we should stop spraying ... so we will be a healthy county."
The action was very different from what had been recommended by county Public Works Director James Porter, who asked that the county continue to maintain the 315 miles of roads under its jurisdiction with a combination of mowing and spraying. Mr. Porter said the county already does not spray about half of those miles of roadside.
Mr. Porter had also, at the direction of supervisors, presented an "alternative" plan that would have banned broadcast spraying in coastal areas of the county. That strategy would mean the county could not maintain all its roadsides, he said.
"We'll take the dollars we have and mow in the areas with the highest risk and vulnerability," he said. He warned that there would be some consequences. "In the areas that we no longer maintain we are anticipating additional roadway damage," he said. "There is a potential for increased fire hazards and increased mosquitoes in those areas."
But supervisors said they want to give the no-spray alternative a chance. According to Ladera resident Lennie Roberts of the Committee for Green Foothills, a number of other counties — including Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Del Norte and Humbolt — control their roadside weeds without spraying.
"I think that you need to exhibit the same leadership that you've done in many other initiatives and establish a policy now that you will mow only except for limited areas where you need to spot spray," Ms. Roberts said.
The public works department will report back to the supervisors in four to six months on the success of the new strategy.
"If there are 10-foot weeds," said Supervisor Pine, "then despite my great, great concern about these chemicals, I can't have people getting in car accidents either, and I can't have fires burning down the forests."
Several residents spoke at the meeting, including David Strohm who asked, "At the end of the day each of you has to ask yourself: Would you stake the safety of your grandchildren ... that these chemicals are safe?"
Shawn Sears, a San Gregorio resident and outdoor education teacher, said the moratorium that the county put on spraying in July has already had an effect. "Last week I was standing by the San Gregorio Creek with a group of students and saw two steelheads in excess of 12 inches swimming up the creek," he said. "It was a beautiful thing."
After the meeting, Ms. Mayall said she is very grateful to the supervisors. "I would like to publicly thank the Board of Supervisors with all my heart and soul and fiber of my being," she said.