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Organic farmer pushes Nevada County’s water district to reduce herbicide use

Orgabic farmer Mike Pasner is concerned about the herbicides that Nevada Irrigation District uses in its irrigation canals, such as this one that runs by his ranch off Indian Springs Road.
Photo by Liz Kellar/lizk@theunio

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For more information on Mike Pasner’s campaign go to his Safe Ditches page on Facebook.

Mike Pasner is a man on a mission. For months, he has been pushing the Nevada Irrigation District board of directors on the use of herbicides in its canals. And now he’s looking to spread the word on his campaign, debuting at the Nevada City Farmer’s Market this Saturday.

The water district drips aquatic herbicides into 350 miles of irrigation ditches — including 33 miles of natural creeks — to control weeds and algae, Pasner said. But he insists it would be just as economical, and a lot more environmentally friendly, simply to dredge the canals once a year.

“I just want to see them reduce their herbicide dependency — and they can,” he said.

The water district, meanwhile, points to a testing study it began this year to find less toxic methods for its program to keep weeds, grass and problematic vegetation at bay along its canals. And, it says, it has determined that its aquatic herbicides are safe.

“NID is firmly committed to reducing our use of chemicals overall and moving to more sustainable and environmentally friendly vegetation management solutions,” said district General Manager Rem Scherzinger.

Safe or unsafe?

From Pasner’s perspective, even the herbicides that the water district considers safe are of concern.

And, he notes, even though glyphosate has been classified as a carcinogen, the water district used Roundup (which contains glyphosate) as recently as the beginning of this irrigation season.

Nevada Irrigation District maintains 450 miles of raw water conveyance systems, and 350 miles of this system are treated with herbicides with 62 delivery points.

Cutrine and Nautique are the aquatic herbicides applied above Pasner’s farm, and he says these algaecides are high in elemental copper.

“We’ve been successful in getting them to reduce, and hopefully stop, the use of Roundup,” he said. “Elemental copper is the next bad actor.”

According to Pasner, the water district’s stance is that it is monitoring the levels but that the district often is right at the legal limit.

“They assure us it’s gone within 24 hours, but where does it go?” Pasner said, citing concerns for livestock and wild animals that frequently drink from the canals. “Why is this OK?”

Pasner is skeptical of claims that the copper used in herbicides is safe, pointing out that it was not that long ago that farmers thought the same thing about Roundup.

“Copper will turn out to be just as bad,” he said. “It’s better to err on the side of safety, especially when you have a choice.”

Pasner believes the water district could effectively manage algae and weeds in the canals with excavators, for no more money than they spend now.

“They don’t want to hear it,” he said.

As part of his effort, Pasner created three large operations maps showing the entire district and the proposed Centennial dam.

The water district would not give him an electronic version of the map, he said, adding they cited Homeland Security concerns.

Instead, he was given 565, 8-1/2 by 11 pages that he spent the winter painstakingly numbering, assembling on poster board and then laminating.

On the giant map of the NID waterways, Pasner has inked in the sites where the district has placed drip boxes. And as part of his education campaign, he is asking people to take photos if they see NID workers spraying Roundup on ditch banks and berms, as well as of the drip boxes dripping the dark purple elemental copper into the water.

“NID will only change its poison dependency if enough people join together in protests,” Pasner wrote on a flyer he passes out. “Your photos will be used to enhance the map through the addition of imagery of specific sites.”

NID details efforts

Nevada Irrigation District this year began a testing study to find less toxic methods of keeping weeds, grass and problematic vegetation at bay along its canals.

During the testing, district personnel set up 48 10-by-15-foot plots along a canal, and used different methods to eliminate weeds and unwanted vegetation. Each plot was evaluated for plant species before chemical application and changes were monitored at given intervals.

Nine organic herbicides were tested, as were an abrasion tool, goats and a mower. According to an Aug. 21 staff report from Maintenance Manager Brian Powell, a steam unit that had been part of the plan was not available and the team hopes to test it during the second phase of the study.

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

Until the testing is concluded, NID probably will continue to use Roundup, and district staff would not be specific about a timeline for ceasing use.

“We are looking for alternatives now, and as they are found, they will be added to our uses,” Scherzinger said.

That lengthy study is only intended to identify alternatives to Roundup, however.

The water district said it is not looking to reduce its use of its aquatic herbicides that contain copper.

“At this time, the herbicides we use are approved for use by the USEPA and Cal EPA,” Scherzinger said, adding that sediment residuals are below normal levels.

According to an Aug. 21 staff report from Powell, the district examined possible issues with copper residue stemming from its use of herbicides in the irrigation canals.

“Approximately 30 percent of the canal system is not accessible by vehicle, due to terrain or narrow canal berms,” Powell wrote. “So, for these areas, the method for aquatic weed control or removal is either manual labor or aquatic herbicides. … Over the many decades of delivering water to its customers in Nevada and Placer counties, NID has developed a program of using aquatic herbicides, which provides the most cost-effective method.”

Powell’s report goes on to note that over the 40 years the district has been using aquatic herbicides, there have not been any reports or claims of injury or illness, either from the public or district staff, due to the use of aquatic herbicides.

The district took canal sediment “grab samples” at different locations throughout the canal system between February and May to test for copper residual, which could create a hazardous environment. The results showed concentrations of copper residual within the normal range found in typical farm soil, Powell wrote. No accumulation was found at the end of canal systems or at the reservoir from the flushing of storm water through the canals.

“The aquatic herbicides used by NID to control the growth of vegetation in its canal system are not dangerous products and have no detrimental effects,” he concluded. “The use of these aquatic herbicides should not cause concern.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-236 or by email at lizk@theunion.com.

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