Opponents of roadside herbicide spraying in San Mateo County are watching closely as Caltrans reviews its weed-removal policies affecting the county's state highways, including Highway 84. What the state transportation agency is actually up to with its weed-abatement program is unclear at this point, but there appears to be some movement on Caltrans' part to ease away from its controversial program of "broadcast" spraying toxic chemicals to kill weeds a practice that carries potential risk to people, wildlife and the watershed.
The practice has been banned in a number of counties including San Mateo County but the ban applies only to areas directly under the counties' jurisdiction. Although Caltrans has honored the wishes of other counties and is using alternative weed-control methods, the agency, for reasons it has not made clear, hasn't halted the practice locally.
After announcing last year that it would conduct a pilot program in which it would spray herbicides on one side of Highway 84 between Portola Road in Woodside and the coast, and mow, mulch or otherwise mechanically remove weeds on the other side, Caltrans delayed the program, and now, according to an agency spokeswoman, it is "examining several options that might allow a reduction in the amount of spraying within the pilot program."
Some herbicide-spraying opponents say they are "cautiously optimistic" that Caltrans is considering other means of weed abatement. But many are also frustrated over the agency's heel-dragging in responding decisively to the call to stop a practice that threatens public health. The county's supervisors acted in 2012 to ban spraying, citing the risk to human health and the environment; a grassroots citizens group, Protect Our Watershed, has been fighting the practice. What is behind Caltrans' resistance?
That question cries out for an answer, particularly given that the agency has been using alternative methods in other counties, such as Marin, with success. As state Sen. Jerry Hill puts it, Caltrans has "made the decision elsewhere to discontinue spraying. We raised the idea why is this different? They can't really justify using the spraying when there are alternatives available."
Weed-control methods that don't include spraying toxics into the public space include mulching, mowing, and revegetating with native plants. Patty Mayall of Protect Our Watershed noted that the community affected by Highway 84 spraying can offer help with removing invasive plant species and helping to replace them with native plants that will crowd out invasive weeds.
All eyes are on Caltrans now as the agency rethinks its weed-control methods in the county. A Caltrans spokeswoman told the Almanac that the agency's current review of its practices wasn't a result of public pressure a statement that smacks of arrogance but is hard to take seriously. Public pressure must continue. Caltrans should be pressed to answer why, if it continues to spray toxic chemicals in the public space, it is doing so when alternative methods of controlling weeds are available.