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Keeping Spray at Bay?

Napa weighs options on glassy-winged sharpshooter

By Joy Lanzendorfer

The glassy-winged sharpshooter--the dread bug with yellow, catlike eyes that haunts the nightmares of wine growers statewide--is closer to Napa and Sonoma counties than ever before. Earlier this month, an infestation was found in Vacaville, creating a flurry of anxiety up and down wine country. Since the sharpshooter spreads the vine-killing Pierce's disease, an infestation could devastate the wine industry. That, many feel, is nothing to kid around about.

"Our number one priority should we find a sharpshooter is to get rid of it," says Mary Jean McLaughlin of the Napa County Department of Agriculture. "It's like a cancer that should be removed as quickly as possible before it spreads."

As understandable as concern over the sharpshooter is, some groups are more interested in the methods that would be used to eradicate it should it show up.

For every glassy-winged sharpshooter found in Napa or Sonoma County, a radius of a quarter mile would be drawn around it, treated and searched for other sharpshooters. Part of that treatment would most likely include forced spraying of pesticides. "Forced spraying" is exactly what it sounds like: whether property owners like it or not, even if they are growing an organic garden or have a newborn baby or are allergic to certain chemicals, the county would come in and spray the property with pesticides.

Some groups, like Napa's People Opposed to Insecticide Spraying on Neighborhoods (POISON), want the government to spend more time considering the people on those properties before spraying.

"There are all these people who have zero tolerance for pesticides, like the bedridden, elderly and children," says POISON cofounder Lowell Downey. "Napa's agricultural commissioner Dave Whitmer is a very responsible man and he told me that he doesn't want to forcibly spray anybody, but he would be up against a lot of pressure if the sharpshooter were found. The wine industry is very big and very powerful."

Downey's is one of several antipesticide groups that recently sued the California Department of Food and Agriculture to require site-specific environmental review on an area before spraying. Under the current law, the state would spray the same amount of chemicals on an industrial park that it would spray in residential neighborhoods or school zones, according to Californians for Alternatives to Toxics (CAT), one of the plaintiffs in the case.

A San Francisco Superior Court Judge ruled in favor of the state of California in the case, and the antipesticide groups are still deciding whether they will appeal the decision. In the meantime, the glassy-winged sharpshooter is making this issue more pressing than ever.

"Look what just happened in Vacaville--they sprayed!" says Patty Clary of CAT. "There was no site-specific review. In other words, no one looked at whether there are 400 kids in this apartment complex, and maybe we should do this in the least toxic way possible."

Insecticides have been linked to health problems in humans, especially children, and pesticide spraying has a profound impact on the environment. Many antipesticide groups promote the use of such alternatives as biological control (using predators to remove a pest, such as releasing ladybugs to eat aphids) and cultural control (manipulating the environment to remove a pest, as with literally hand-vacuuming plants).

However, alternative methods aren't as successful as pesticides when it comes to eradicating a pest.

"In the case of something like the glassy-winged sharpshooter, where you want the population at such low levels, causing it to go extinct locally through biological control is extremely rare," says Alexander Purcell, an entomology professor at UC Berkeley. "And you're not going to get them all with cultural control. It's true, pesticide is not a perfect solution, but there are no perfect solutions that I'm aware of."

Sonoma County has gone through forced spraying before. In the 1980s, the apple industry was plagued with the apple maggot fly, which led to forced spraying and the ripping up of orchards.

"I know of people who stood on their properties with shotguns saying that if you come on my property to spray, I'll shoot you," says Clary. "They were spraying cherry trees and there were enormous pesticide drifts. It broke the back of the North Coast apple industry."

But as the Napa property tax form says, living in an agricultural zone sometimes means giving up certain rights. Still, the degree your rights should be infringed upon is under debate.

"We're not against the farmers here," says Downey. "We just want to make sure everyone is represented if someday the sharpshooter is found."

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From the June 23-29, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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