Spray battle moves to highways

It’s been nearly three years since Island County last sprayed its 1,200 miles of road shoulders with herbicides, but that doesn’t mean the island road system has been chemical free.

State trucks and maintenance workers are expected out in April to spray the shoulders along Highways 525 and 20; they will be using a chemical designed to get into the ground and prevent seeds from germinating in the first place. The method is standard practice statewide, but a coalition of local groups that successfully convinced the county to abandon the use of chemical sprays in 2002, is now trying to get the state to change its ways.

Mark Wahl, an activist with Whidbey Island No Spray (WINS), said this week that Island County would be the ideal location for a pilot program for the state to test a completely chemical-free maintenance program.

Highways 525 and 20 are the paved backbone of Whidbey Island, stretching a scant 50 miles through moss-covered forests, passing along farm fields, and dissecting the arid prairie of Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

The short length of the highway and the transitional ecosystem it passes through make it the best site for a no-spray pilot program for a state that is too dependent on chemicals, Wahl said.

Island County is one of six Washington counties to adopt a no-spray policy, meaning it uses mowers and other mechanical means to keep weeds and other roadside plants under control. The state, however, continues to spray in each of those counties.

A coalition of Whidbey Island groups and similar no-spray groups in Clallam County met with Washington State Department of Transportation officials earlier this year to make their arguments against the practice.

The result is a revised draft plan drawn up by WSDOT to reduce, but not eliminate, the amount of chemicals used, said Ray Willard, the department’s Roadside Maintenance Program manager. The draft plan will be presented at an open house to be held at the Coupeville High School Performing Arts Center on April 6. County Commissioner Mike Shelton will officiate the discussion between residents and WSDOT representatives.

Plan, county example provides some solutions

Island County already has one of the lowest rates of chemical use in the state, Willard said. Last year, state maintenance crews used an average of 5.87 pounds of chemicals per mile -- that’s dry weight, before mixing with a liquid -- which he estimates covers about 10 acres of road shoulder. That represents a 40-percent reduction from the previous year, he said, and this year should be even lower. In other parts of the state, especially in the east where there are more agricultural concerns, the state uses up to 10 times that amount, he said.

But, this does not reassure herbicide opponents. Wahl of WINS said the draft plan is little more than “business as usual, with a few tweaks.” The No-Spray coalition has commented on the plan twice, making recommendations on how to further reduce or eliminate chemical use on the roads while maintaining safety and cost effectiveness, he said.

The debate over the use of herbicides centers on money as well as safety and environmental health. It cost Island County $184,000 to buy four mowers needed to control weeds without chemicals. When considering the life of those mowers, Island County Public Works Director Bill Oakes calculates that annual operating costs for roadside weed control will cost about $45,000 a year more than it did when herbicides were used. Herbicides are usually applied only once a year, he explained, while mowers must make two or three passes each year.

“We can control the vegetation either way,” Oakes said. “It’s just a matter of costs.”

The added cost to Island County averages about $37.50 per mile. The state’s cost would be higher, Willard said, due to the amount of traffic on the highway. It would require a second vehicle to warn drivers about the upcoming hazard of mowers on the shoulder.

“Without herbicides, we’ve got a lot more hand work and a lot more mowing and that adds up to a lot more cost,” he said.

Wahl, however, is skeptical about the cost issue. Cost analyses don’t always include the hidden costs of using chemicals, he said, such as the cost of storage, the testing of nearby waters, medical testing of employees, and liability issues, including litigation by people sensitive to chemicals. It also doesn’t take into account investment into innovations such as ground mats, which can be installed around guard rails to keep vegetation from springing up, he said.

Oakes agrees that actual costs could go up or down, depending on the long-term effectiveness of mowing and proper vegetation management. If vegetation starts encroaching along the pavement’s edge, he said it could damage the road or prevent water from running off, thereby increasing the risk of hydroplaning. That vegetation would have to be physically cut back and removed, a labor-intensive process with a substantial cost.

On the other hand, the costs could come down with proper vegetation management, Oakes said. Over time, especially after road construction or major repairs, the re-vegetation of the roadside can be done in such a way as to reduce the frequency of mowing.

Speaking on the issue this week, Commissioner Shelton looked back two years and remembered the strong turnout of residents and the petition with 2,000 names that helped convince the county board adopt a no-spray policy.

“It certainly is a budgetary issue, especially in these times when revenue is down,” Shelton said. “But in our case, that wasn’t the deciding factor.”

The parties involved in the debate over the state highways seemed to agree that vegetation management is the best and most cost-effective long-term solution. But, getting there takes time

The state’s draft plan includes some test plots for managing plants instead of spraying them.

It also calls for experimenting with weed blankets around guard rails, seeding a mile-long section north of Greenbank with low-growth grass that runs right up against the pavement, and restoring the natural plant community on another quarter-mile section.

“In the past, we just threw some erosion-control seed out and walked away,” Willard said. “That’s where you get problems with weeds.”

With about 10 miles of highway improvements remaining to be finished on the north end of the island, the state plans a different approach. New re-vegetation policies coming into effect statewide call for use of native plants that should be able to successfully compete against the unwanted exotic species.

“So in the long term, it will take care of itself and we won’t have to come in and take care of it,” Willard said.

The state has also categorized two stretches of the Highway 525/20 corridor as herbicide sensitive. The region around Keystone Spit and Penn Cove will be subject to only spot application of herbicides or hand-pulling of unwanted plants.

WSDOT maintains a database of Whidbey residents who are sensitive to chemicals and, by law, they are notified before any spraying is done near their homes.

Will this draft eventually lead to a chemical-free maintenance program on Whidbey Island? Although the hope is to reduce the use of herbicides to a minimum, Willard thinks it’s unrealistic to expect that spot use of chemicals won’t be needed.

Problem weeds such as Canadian thistle, purple loosestrife, poison hemlock, and a newcomer, hairy willow herb, will continue to infiltrate the region and have to be dealt with, he said.

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