By Kate Bradshaw | Special to the Almanac
In response to community concerns about the use of the herbicide Roundup Pro Max in city parks, the Menlo Park City Council will consider tonight (Aug. 25) a pilot program to create herbicide-free areas at four of those parks.
In addition, the council may give the city manager authority to seek bids on a plan to adopt an herbicide-free policy for all 12 city parks. The four parks that would be tested as herbicide-free areas are Bedwell Bayfront, Fremont, Willow Oaks and Stanford Hills. They represent a cross-section of the city's neighborhood and environmental features, said Environmental Program Manager Heather Abrams.
The regular session of the council meeting starts at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 26, at the council chambers at 701 Laurel St. in Menlo Park.
The city's current Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Plan, adopted in 1998, is a 45-page document that repeatedly states that synthetic chemical pesticides (including herbicides, insecticides, and other pest-killing substances) should be used minimally or not at all when effective alternatives are available. This policy has led to a decrease in herbicide use in Menlo Park by 21 percent since 1996, according to Ms. Abrams.
Proposed changes to the city's pest-management plan will summarize the key tenets of the existing plan in a four-page streamlined document, the template for which was created by the San Mateo Water County Water Pollution Prevention Program. The changes would also provide standard methods to notify park visitors about pesticide sprayings.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency categorizes pesticides in four ways: (1) "danger," (2) "warning," (3) "caution," and (4) no caution required. Roundup is in the third, or "caution" category. According to Ms. Abrams, one proposed change to the city's pest-managment policy would require expert consultation with the Parks and Recreation Department prior to applying a Category 3 pesticide. Now, only Category 2 pesticides require consultation. Category 1 pesticides are never used.
Last year, to determine if other, non-synthetic herbicides are viable, staff with the Menlo Park Parks and Recreation Department conducted a six-month trial to compare the effectiveness and cost of alternatives to traditional herbicides.
Four treatments were tested: One synthetic chemical treatment (RoundUp Pro Max), two organic-label chemical treatments (Finalsan and BurnOut II), and one pesticide-free strategy (mulching and mowing strategies). RoundUp Pro Max was found to last the longest at lowest cost, and required less protective gear than the organic label treatments.
The alternative herbicides cost about $7 more per bottle, require applicators to wear hazmat suits, and have to be applied up to three times as often and in higher concentration. With these results, the city's Environmental Quality Commission recommended mulching and mowing as the best option to produce the lowest environmental impact.
Next, the city made an estimate of what it would cost to implement only labor-intensive manual weeding and mulch strategies. This estimate, from the city's current landscaping contractor, Gachina, was $552,964 annually, about five times what the city currently pays for its park maintenance. Another estimate was substantially lower.
To fully determine the financial viability of going herbicide-free across all parks maintained by Menlo Park, the council will consider on Tuesday whether the city manager should issue a request for proposals from other landscape contractors to see if herbicide-free landscaping can be done at a lower cost.
Although RoundUp is used widely in the U.S. agriculture sector, its use causes concern for some Menlo Park residents. Its primary ingredient is glyphosate, a substance with an impact on human health that is still being debated. The latest statement, in March, from the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, is that it is "probably carcinogenic."
However, other sources, including a 1993 report from the Environmental Protection Agency, state that there is no sufficient evidence to suspect long-term health detriment from mild exposure to glyphosate. According to Ms. Abrams, the more serious risk associated with glyphosate use is not its direct threat to humans, but the environmental concern it raises if it enters the water supply in runoff, where it may affect plants in ecosystems downstream.
Simply not using Roundup assures it will stay out of the city parks' runoff. The question is whether the city wants this badly enough to foot the bill for the substantial labor-cost increases needed to control weeds with mulching and mowing.