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Nevada County water district ponders Roundup use

The Nevada Irrigation District has been looking at alternatives to Roundup, a popular herbicide, for almost two years — ever since the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment placed glyphosate, the active ingredient in the weed killer, on the Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer.

The water district said Thursday it plans to stay the course, despite a growing number of successful lawsuits targeting the use of Roundup that have been sparking concerns of legal liability.

In May, a California jury awarded $2 billion to two property owners who claimed their non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer, was caused by years of using Roundup. It was the third legal loss since August 2018 for Bayer AG, which has seen its market value plummet to $52 billion, cut nearly in half since it acquired Monsanto a year ago.

This month, Bayer AG announced it will devote about $5.6 billion of its research and development budget into alternatives to glyphosate over the next decade as it battles more than 13,000 lawsuits claiming the herbicide causes cancer.

“There is a lot of media coverage and people concerned about it, rightly so,” said Nevada Irrigation District General Manager Greg Jones, adding the full impact and outcome to every water district and municipality that uses Roundup is unclear. “Is everybody going to take a straight line stop and wait until the courts decide? We are moving forward with our process.”

Jones said the district is finishing a two-year pilot project designed to look at Roundup alternatives and is looking to make any potential changes to its program for next year. This year, the district’s weed management program listed Roundup for use during the off-irrigation season — Oct. 16 to March 30 — for canal berms and access roads; the banks and bottoms of de-watered canals, down to the high water mark; and at industrial sites such as tanks and pump sites, water treatment facilities, power plants and dam faces. Roundup also was listed for year-round use for terrestrial, non-aquatic weeds.

“It’s still a legal product in the State of California,” Jones pointed out, adding the district does not anticipate a “knee-jerk reaction” of shutting down its use of Roundup.

“We are looking at other alternatives to serve the same purpose or better,” he said. “This is the study we have been doing … We are interested in wrapping this up and assessing the alternative methods of weed control vis-a-vis the current use of Roundup, something that is going to be acceptable and usable for all our constituents, the community, the district and the regulatory agencies.”

Alternatives tested

In 2017, the water district formed a Vegetation Management Working Group to discuss alternatives to spraying Roundup, which it uses to kill weeds along the berms and waterways of its canals. In 2018, the district began the first phase of a pilot project that tested nine organic herbicides, as well as mowing, goat grazing, and an abrasion tool that uses crushed walnut shells to blast plants.

In February, the district released the findings from that first phase of testing, which was done in April on Tarr Canal, downstream of McCourtney Road, and Newtown Canal off Bitney Springs Road. The tests monitored plant response to the herbicides, changes in percentage of plant cover and overall level of efficacy.

“Although some products demonstrate higher potential than others, overall it is clear that in order to be effective, the organic herbicides should be applied earlier in the season,” the report concluded.

Costs associated with goat grazing (which was tested in July) and mowing were not included in the project analysis.

That second phase was to include more organic herbicides, mechanical approaches including mowing, abrasion tool and steaming, and planting native vegetation to out-compete less desirable plants.

According to a staff report issued April 23, the second phase of the pilot project has tested herbicides and four mechanical methods: a hand-held weedeater, the crushed walnut shell blaster, a propane weed burner, and a “saturated steamer” that uses steam to kill weeds thermally.

“We did enter into the process too late in that first phase of the study,” Jones said. “The second phase (was) a more robust program that we can have a rich dialogue on.”

Jones said the final analyses are being performed and the Phase 2 report should be done this fall.

“That is the right timing,” he said, adding the results will inform the weed management program for the following spring and beyond. “We can’t really speed up the process. These are real-life applications we are doing, not in a controlled laboratory. We’re just waiting for the results, to inform how we’re going to move forward in 2020.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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