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Blight Fight: Activists and local governments alike are trying different ways to eradicate weeds and insects without the use of chemicals.

Green Blues

North Bay pest controllers strive to think outside of the bottle

By Tara Treasurefield

Michael Honig, president of Honig Winery in Napa, is in love. The object of his affection on this fall afternoon is a team of golden retriever puppies that are learning to "sniff out" the dread vine mealy bug.

This tiny insect secretes honeydew, a sweet, sticky substance that provides an ideal environment for black mold and diseases that afflict grapevines. As it happens, honeydew is also a food delicious to ants. To ensure a food source, ants literally move female mealy bugs around the grapevines with them, spreading mold and disease in the process.

A further complication is that because they can't fly, female mealy bugs protect themselves by hiding beneath the bark on vines. Consequently, grape growers sometimes don't even know mealy bugs are present until the entire vineyard is infested. That's where the pups come in. Instead of looking for mealy bugs, they home in on the scent of the females' pheromones.

As the golden retrievers leave their puppyhood behind them, they'll learn to stand at attention before an infested vine and bark an alert. Then, says Honig, "we'll pull the vine out," thus eliminating the need to spray the entire vineyard with toxic chemicals. Putting their money where their hearts are, Honig and other area county grape growers have contributed $32,000 to the puppies' first year of education at the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa.

Recruiting pheromone-sniffing dogs is just one example of how creative and actually sexy organic practices can be, and how enthusiastically growers in Napa, Sonoma and Marin counties embrace them. But the course of true love never does run smooth, and obstacles to the North Bay's romance with sustainability abound. Pressure from developers is a constant, and political advocates can come and go; in Napa last year, staunch environmentalist Mike Rippey lost his seat on the board of supervisors.

Another hot-button issue is genetic engineering. While Honig and other grape growers are passionate about sustainability, that doesn't prevent them from considering the possible benefits of genetically engineered vines.

In Sonoma County, Sebastopol has long been a model of organics and sustainability. It has programs for tree planting, toxics education, water conservation and green building, and city property has been declared a pesticide-free zone. Now, plants that are choking the Laguna de Santa Rosa are testing Sebastopol's commitment to organics.

The Laguna extends from Sebastopol to Santa Rosa, and from Rohnert Park and Cotati to Forestville and Windsor. At the Sebastopol end of the waterway last spring, some 100 volunteers cut back or smothered with cardboard and biomass the invasive non-native pepperweed that threatens the Laguna. It was a huge undertaking, and in October, the city of Sebastopol took over where the volunteers left off.

"We did some test patches of different methods," says Richard Emig, Sebastopol's superintendent of public works. "Four of us used a tractor, black plastic and sandbags [to secure the plastic] for about half a day." When they check the results next spring, they may also apply clove oil as a natural pesticide and use a propane torch to burn the pepperweed in some areas.

Sebastopol mayor Larry Robinson says the city is committed to experimenting with nontoxic methods for now. But if the results aren't good next fall, all bets may be off. "[Councilman] Sam Pierce and I want to keep all options on the table, even glyphosate," Robinson says, referring to the active ingredient in Roundup. "That's a preferred option to allowing the Laguna to turn into a desert. If we delay too long, we're going to wind up having to use more toxic chemicals than we would have if we had used them judiciously early on."

At the suggestion of Anna Sears, research director at the Laguna Foundation in Santa Rosa, Robinson is also considering Telar, which is listed as a developmental toxin and a reproductive toxin under California's Proposition 65. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Telar also threatens nontarget plants through drift, runoff or direct application. Robinson says they'd only use it in dry areas, because it's prohibited for use on or near water.

Concerned about the impacts of pesticides, the pepperweed eradication instigator, a volunteer who goes by the name of Magick, wants the city to persist with what she calls "new ways to work within the natural world, correct our mistakes and see what nature does once we get out of the way." But other Sonoma County environmentalists have already turned to chemicals. Since 2001, the Sonoma Ecology Center has been using glyphosate against the arundo plant in Sonoma Valley creeks.

To combat another invasive water weed, ludwigia, the Laguna Foundation began spraying Dow's Glypro herbicide in the Laguna de Santa Rosa in July. Though it's mostly glyphosate, 46.2 percent of Glypro is "inert," its ingredients trade secrets, the toxicity unknown. The manufacturer has assured the foundation that the mysterious 46.2 percent is almost entirely water.

"We thought that the combination of herbicides and mechanical removal would be most effective over the short-term to try to bring ludwigia under control," says Sears, who has found that mechanical removal, flaming and crushing aren't effective unless the entire root system is removed or the plant is killed. Ludwigia can quickly resprout and reproduce from root and stem fragments. But so far, Glypro hasn't worked well either, and Julian Meisler, restoration project manager at the Laguna Foundation, is anxious. "The [ludwigia] density is so great right now it's difficult to do anything," he says. "That has a great impact on the biodiversity out there."

To make some headway, Meisler has suggested the possibility of limited aerial spraying next year. Another option, he says, is to switch to triclopyr. Though it can cause irreversible eye damage and is considered a probable groundwater contaminant, triclopyr has helped other California communities control ludwigia, Meisler says. Long-term solutions, including tree planting, wetlands restoration and biological controls, are also being researched, and the foundation has called on the State Water Resources Control Board to study the degree to which dairies, farming, septic tanks, storm water and other runoff contribute to pollution in the Laguna.

Mark Squire, co-owner of Whole Foods Natural Market in Fairfax and co-creator of worldwide organic food standards, can't abide chemical pesticides. "What's wrong with us if we can't create a culture where we can hire a thousand people to manage the weeds in the Laguna?" he asks. "We put a person on the moon, for God's sake! The dilemma is that we're thinking too small."

More and more Marinites are joining Squire in shooting for the moon. A group of children in Tiburon have leukemia; their parents are keenly aware of a study showing that children exposed to pesticides before birth and during the first three years of life are significantly more likely than other children to get leukemia by the age of 15.

In West Marin, private ranchers have been aerial spraying pesticides for star thistle. The potential for pesticide exposure from drift is significant, and neighbors are protesting. Furthermore, West Marin residents stopped the Mosquito Abatement District from spraying for West Nile virus this year.

Building on the momentum, Marin Beyond Pesticides Coalition, a consortium of 42 organizations and businesses, wants a ban on pesticides at public schools, and is also urging Marin County cities to adopt a pesticide neighbor notification ordinance modeled after the one in Fairfax. A legacy of Frank Egger, who recently lost a reelection bid to the Fairfax Town Council, the ordinance requires residents to give nearby neighbors 48 hours notice before spraying pesticides.

"We're also trying to get San Rafael, Novato, Tiburon and Mill Valley to enact Integrated Pest Management ordinances like the one Marin County has for its property," says Ginger Sauders-Mason, who coordinates Marin Beyond Pesticides.

"IPM begins with something as simple as taking out the trash," says Fred Crowder, Marin County's assistant agricultural commissioner. "For example, there were cockroaches in the county kitchen. They used to spray pesticides on schedule, and still had a problem. Then they brought people in to clean, and it worked. They haven't sprayed in years.

"We live in a society of convenience," Crowder continues. "We look for things that are faster, easier, get immediate results. Unfortunately, pesticides do that."

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From the December 7-13, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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