Sonoma County supervisors eye pesticide restrictions on public land

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Sonoma County supervisors are scheduled to consider a proposal Tuesday to ban synthetic pesticides on county property open to public use and in other “no synthetic spray zones” to be determined this year.

The proposal specifically precludes use of synthetic herbicides, insecticides and fungicides on county agency campuses, sidewalks, plazas, playing fields, playgrounds and county-maintained libraries.

It also would apply to Sonoma Water, the Agricultural and Open Space District, the Community Development Commission and the Transportation and Public Works Department, requiring them to eliminate pesticide use “to the maximum extent practicable.”

The Transportation and Public Works Department is experimenting with organic alternatives to manage roadside vegetation that poses a safety risk or can contribute to flooding, said Dan Virkstis, a department spokesman.

Private land would be exempt from the ban. The county is prohibited from regulating pesticide use on private property, a county staff report said.

“It feels good to get it before the board,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said, noting that she started work on pesticide regulation, one of her key 2016 campaign promises, more than two years ago but set it aside after the 2017 wildfires.

Hopkins represents the west Sonoma County district, where an informal ban on roadside spraying has been in place for years, she said.

The proposal comes as public reaction to synthetic pesticides is growing, with Sonoma County Conservation Action, a prominent local environmental group, pushing for bans in public spaces and schools.

Opposition mounted when glyphosate, the chemical marketed under the name Roundup since 1974 and widely used as a weed killer, was added to California’s Proposition 65 list of cancer-causing chemicals in 2017.

Last August, Santa Rosa prohibited use of synthetic weed killer at dozens of parks, buildings and medians following a three-year citizen campaign.

Hopkins said she met Megan Kaun, a Sebastopol resident and Conservation Action board member, on the campaign trail and began working on the organization’s goal of a toxic-free future.

“It was really two moms sitting down and talking about our kids,” said Hopkins, a mother of three.

Kaun, a mother of two and a former member of Santa Rosa’s Board of Public Utilities, began lobbying city officials to quit using glyphosate on a playground near her former home in 2015.

Kaun said she considers Hopkins “an early champion” of the cause and the resolution — including creation of no-spray zones — “a good first step.”

“There’s no such thing as a safe synthetic pesticide,” Kaun said, noting that Roundup, ironically, is “probably the safest.”

Hopkins and Kaun both highlighted the resolution’s provision calling for an annual report on the amount and locations where pesticides were applied by county agencies.

“We want to decrease the use of pesticides to the greatest extent possible,” Hopkins said.

Some certified organic pesticides — often billed as alternatives to synthetics — are harmful to pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, she said.

In open areas where vegetation management is necessary, Hopkins said she prefers mechanical clearing or grazing by goats or cattle as an alternative.

The resolution allows use of pesticides on “targeted, specific weed infestations where non-chemical means are ineffective” and the risk of no action is significant.

Hopkins said it is critical to keep places where children play free of toxics.

Many parents opt to buy organic food for their families, she said, a choice “that is undermined when kids (on playgrounds) are running through wood chips sprayed with herbicide.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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