By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
San Mateo County will extend a moratorium on spraying herbicides along 315-miles of county-maintained roads until March 13 while figuring out how to enact recommendations for better managing roadside vegetation, a subcommittee of the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday, Jan. 17.
The moratorium will not affect roadsides maintained by the California Department of Transportation, although Caltrans does not spray in counties that have adopted permanent bans on herbicide spraying. In November Caltrans broadcast spraying herbicide along a 15-mile swath of Highway 84, despite protests from nearby residents and county and Bay Area officials.
Supervisors Dave Pine and Don Horsley, who are the two members of the supervisors' Environmental Quality Committee, heard from the authors of a Roadside Vegetation Management Study at the meeting.
The supervisors agreed to ask Public Works Director Jim Porter to return to the March 13 meeting of the full Board of Supervisors with a work plan for putting the study's recommendations into effect. In the meantime a spraying moratorium that started in July, when the consultant's report was authorized, will continue.
The report, prepared by Baefsky and Associates of Orinda, recommends the county start following its own Integrated Pest Management and Water Pollution Prevention guidelines in managing roadside weeds by using pesticides as a last resort and using the least toxic and least risky pesticides available.
While the report recommends the county make significant short- and long-term changes in how it treats roadside weeds, it does not completely rule out spraying of herbicides. Instead it recommends replacing "broadcast spraying" in which wide swaths of roadside are uniformly sprayed, with "targeted spraying" in which specific plants and areas are sprayed.
Such targets could include invasive plants like pampas grass that are squeezing out native plants in parts of the county. In fact, the supervisors gave county workers permission to resume spraying on pampas grass around the Half Moon Bay Airport while the moratorium is still in effect.
County residents are afraid that herbicides end up in their water supply and soil. Jo Chamberlain of Half Moon Bay said that many county residents get their drinking water from local creeks.
"Everything that hits the roadway and the roadsides ends up in these people's drinking water," and in the water they use on their gardens, she said.
Ms. Chamberlain said she favors another of the reports' recommendations, encouraging low-growing native grasses on roadsides to replace invasive weeds. "Put out seed and grow these beautiful grasses," she said.
In June of 2010 the Board of Supervisors voted to try to reduce the use of pesticides (herbicides are considered a pesticide as the plants they kill are unwanted) by using integrated pest management techniques in all county operations. They cited concerns about water quality and the effects on wildlife, including some endangered species.
A plan to phase out the use of herbicides and move toward mowing only over a period of 10 years was suggested. But residents of unincorporated county areas where broadcast spraying takes place protested that 10 years was too long too wait. The report was commissioned in response to those complaints.
Among the 315-miles of county-maintained roads that had areas viewed and analyzed as part of the report are many in the Almanac circulation area, including Alpine Road, Sand Hill Road, Whiskey Hill Road, La Honda Road, Old La Honda Road, Kings Mountain Road, Canada Road and Skyline Boulevard.
Half of the county roads are currently mowed only with no herbicide spraying; the other half are sprayed, with some sprayed and mowed. The report concluded that while the county currently does a good job of maintaining sight lines and keeping roads fire safe, it has room for improvement in several areas, including drainage, keeping plants from growing into the roads, and getting rid of invasive or noxious weeds.
The county needs to also improve its relationship with residents concerned about use of herbicides and make sure it is following state, federal and its own regulations, the report says.
The report recommends "implementing an Integrated Pest Management program for roadside weeds that incorporates the best elements of the current Spray-Mow program and more precisely targets specific weeds, modifies where, how and with what spraying and mowing occurs, uses alternative treatment methods, improves communication and takes the next steps towards licensing, implementing best management practices, increasing safety measures for roadside users and improving communication between staff and residents of unincorporated San Mateo County."
Click here to view the full report (PDF document).