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Bernalillo County Commission sacks weed control chemical

Anthony Torres of the Bernalillo County Parks and Recreation Department uses a trimmer to control weeds at Shadyside Park in the South Valley on Tuesday. The County Commission has approved a resolution to abandon the use of the chemical glyphosate in weed control. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ending Bernalillo County’s use of the pesticide glyphosate may increase annual weed control costs by $1.2 million, and change the look of some parks and open space properties, according to the department that maintains them.

But one county elected official says the move is important enough to warrant additional spending and alter what the community expects in its public recreation areas.

The County Commission on Tuesday night approved a resolution to fully abandon use of the chemical glyphosate – the primary weed-killing ingredient in Roundup – by next April, a decision the Parks, Recreation and Open Space Department says will require additional personnel and alternative landscaping.

“It’s a paradigm shift,” said John Barney, a planning manager with the department, which encompasses 123 properties and 2,209 acres.

In an interview, Barney said the county will hire a consultant to help with the implementation since ceasing glyphosate application marks a significant change in direction.

“We’re going to be learning as we go a little bit,” he said.

The department had presented the Commission with a two-year glyphosate phaseout schedule, contending it is already overwhelmed and needs time to adjust.

But Commissioner Debbie O’Malley argued that two years is too long. During Tuesday’s meeting, she won support from fellow board members to shorten the timetable to one year and the amended resolution passed 4-0.

“I know it’s not going to be easy, but … it was never about being easy,” O’Malley said. “It’s about trying to do the right thing for the health and welfare of the community.”

Roundup maker Monsanto has faced thousands of lawsuits related to its safety, and a California man who claimed the product caused his cancer was awarded $80 million in damages by a jury just last month. Monsanto maintains Roundup is safe.

Citing constituent concerns about the chemical’s impact on human health and the environment, the County Commission had in October ordered staff to temporarily halt all use of the chemical, but had not approved any long-term strategy until Tuesday.

Parks department officials say using glyphosate means a smaller crew can keep parks and open spaces tidy. The county used 917 gallons of concentrated glyphosate last fiscal year.

Before spraying glyphosate, crews are supposed to consider other weed-control options.

Ed Martinez, the department’s land management section manager, said workers typically use it on concrete, asphalt or rock areas “where you can’t put mulch, you can’t put plastic on top of it (because) it will look pretty awful.”

Department leaders say there is no better alternative to glyphosate that is also approved by the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, so taking it out of the toolkit will require adding workers to manually or mechanically remove weeds.

The department has 34 full-time maintenance positions, but expects to need 15 more to completely stop glyphosate use. County staff have estimated that achieving a total moratorium will increase Parks’ annual expenses by $1.2 million, most of which is staffing.

The commission included an extra $1.1 million in the fiscal year 2020 budget to account for any costs tied to glyphosate elimination.

Barney said the department will continue to investigate alternative pesticide products and manpower strategies – like using volunteers or inmates to help with maintenance.

But even if the county hires more maintenance workers, officials say the parks and open spaces may actually start looking less green and groomed.

Barney said the county will likely tweak landscaping plans, devoting more space to native vegetation, which requires less tending, but may look “weedy” compared to a typical park.

Added Martinez: “Anything you see out on the mesa, that’s what you’re going to start seeing” on county properties.

O’Malley noted that the public’s expectations may need to change.

“We have come to expect sort of a pristine situation, especially with our parks – no weeds, all clean, grasses, everything is perfect. As a result of that, we have turned to chemicals,” she said prior to Tuesday’s vote, adding that reducing chemical application will mean spaces look different.

“We have to be mindful of that,” she said.

The city of Albuquerque uses glyphosate, though a Parks and Recreation Department spokesman said chemical and organic herbicides are a last resort for its crews. Workers apply them in a “sparse and careful” way, Philip Clelland said, and never on playgrounds or dog parks.

Under Bernalillo County’s present phase-out plan, crews can resume the use of glyphosate on a limited basis. Workers can use it only for “spot treatment,” and are prohibited from applying it on ball fields or play areas or at any time winds exceed 4 mph.

But the department will have to cease all use by next April – a year sooner than it expected.

“We have to go back to the table” to draft a new implementation strategy, Martinez said.

ALSO: In other action Tuesday, the Commission approved issuing $20.2 million in industrial revenue bonds requested by Albuquerque-based Roses Southwest Papers Inc. The company said the bonds would support expansion of its manufacturing operations, including the purchase of new equipment and new warehouse space.

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