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Santa Rosa is the latest Sonoma County city to take a harder look at how it uses synthetic herbicides like Roundup following the state’s action to list the key ingredient in the weed killer as a known cause of cancer.

The City Council agreed Tuesday to re-bid a large landscaping contract to see if there are maintenance options that don’t use glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup, or neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides suspected of contributing to the demise of bee populations.

The city will seek bids for landscaping methods using common chemical sprays, as well as bids using more organic methods outlined by the Russian River Watershed Association.

“I will be very interested to see the Russian River-friendly proposal,” said Councilman Chris Rogers, who urged the city rethink its approach.

The move was the latest by a local government amid rising regulatory and scientific scrutiny of glyphosate, listed this month by California as a cancer-causing agent over the objection of agrichemical giant and Roundup maker Monsanto, which contends it is safe when used appropriately.

Petaluma spent a year studying alternatives to Roundup and similar weed killers, largely suspending their use. The city concluded that using products that did not contain glyphosate were less effective at eradicating weeds, cost significantly more and required more applications. But the city parks manager is now crafting proposed rules that would prohibit glyphosate-based sprays in parks.

Sonoma County’s Regional Parks department favors mechanical weed removal, including mowing and discing, as well as sheep grazing where possible. The costs for such options can be 10 times higher or more than chemical treatments, said Regional Parks Deputy Director Melanie Parker.

The choice reflects an abundance of caution, she said.

“Anytime the science begins to be cloudy on a product, it’s best practice to find ways to minimize its use,” Parker said.

In Santa Rosa, the issue has been percolating for months and surfaced last week during what was expected to be a routine approval of a one-year extension of a contract with Healdsburg-based Golden Gate Landscape Management Inc.

The company sprays glyphosate-based herbicides at dozens of parks, buildings and medians around the city as part of a $509,000 yearly grounds maintenance contract.

Council members, at the urging of activists, asked why the company couldn’t just be asked to switch to organic weed killers, as the company did at the city’s request in 2015 at 67 sites managed by the Santa Rosa Water department.

But city staff concluded rebidding the contract was the best way to make such a change. Chief Finance Office Debbi Lauchner returned to the council on Tuesday and said a new request would be put together within 90 days.

Activists applauded the move as a step toward a more environmentally sensitive approach to managing the city’s various properties.

Kerri Fugett, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, said earlier the study was a good chance for the city to make sure its contractors are following the rules and to see if it’s possible to replace synthetic pesticides and herbicides with organic options.

One of the strongest voices in favor of the city eliminating its use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides has been Megan Kaun, a mother of two and a member of the powerful Board of Public Utilities.

Kaun convinced the city to let her and her neighbors weed Hidden Valley Park by hand instead of having workers use chemical pesticides, which she worries are harmful, especially when used in places frequented by children, such as schools and parks. She also was instrumental in getting Golden Gate Landscape Management to stop using glyphosate on Santa Rosa Water properties.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for us to shed some light on what is going on in the city and ask ourselves if the pesticide use that’s going on is appropriate or not,” Kaun said.

Scrutiny of glyphosate-based herbicides has been on the rise for years, but it spiked with California’s decision to list it as a cancer-causing agent under the state’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known as Proposition 65. State health officials took note of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Cancer Research 2015 listing of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” to humans.

Other groups, however, including the WHO itself and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, have concluded it is unlikely that humans face cancer risks by eating herbicide-treated foods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has listed the herbicide as safe since 1991.

Monsanto tried to block California’s Prop. 65 listing of glyphosate. The company maintains it “does not present an unreasonable risk of adverse effects to humans, wildlife or the environment” when used as directed.

Some cities were far earlier than others to debate and deal with use of chemical herbicides and pesticides.

Sebastopol established itself as a voluntary “toxics-free zone” in 2000, pledging to “reduce and eventually eliminate” the use of chemical pesticides by its agencies, the business community and residents.

Compiling an accurate assessment of Santa Rosa’s use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides is difficult. Parks and Recreation Department crews reported using just under 6 gallons of Roundup Promax in the past year, according to data filed with the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

But that’s because the department has outsourced most of that work to contractors. Over the past year, Golden Gate Landscape Management has reported applying about 38 gallons worth of herbicides and pesticides countywide, but it wasn’t immediately clear how much of that was applied to Santa Rosa parks and other properties, and how much was synthetic versus organic.

The Santa Rosa contract requires the company to maintain 63 park sites, 15 buildings, 62 road medians and 92 roadside areas, spraying one to three times a year, depending on priority, said Nanette Smejkal, the city’s director of parks and recreation.

The contract does not address the types of pesticides that can be used beyond barring the most toxic substances, Smejkal said.

Spraying, outsourced several years ago as a cost-cutting move, is typically done in areas that are difficult to maintain with mowers, such as cracks in sidewalks and planters, said Lisa Grant, Santa Rosa’s parks superintendent.

But for the county park system, spanning 56 parks, trails and beaches, another reason to avoid chemical herbicides is because its use can prove counterproductive — killing existing plants while creating an opening for new weeds to take root and thrive, according to Parker, the agency’s deputy director.

That’s why instead of killing unwanted invasive plants, the department tries to focus on the types of plants it wants to encourage, she said.

“The way that you fight weeds is to promote the vegetation you want,” Parker said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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