Rainy season means more mosquitoes

As the valleys and natural marshes in Northern California fill up with standing water and the rivers overflow their banks, inundating farms and orchards, one group of experts is starting to get anxious. The Butte County Mosquito and Vector Control District is gearing up for the coming West Nile Virus season and looking to its budget, blaming the state of California for taking away mosquito-fighting resources.

Jim Camy, manager of the Butte County Mosquito and Vector Control District, hopes to control the growth of mosquito populations and thereby lessen the chance that Butte County residents will come down with West Nile Virus—a sometimes deadly, but often benign, flu-like illness passed to birds, horses and humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes.

“Right now,” said Camy, “our only option is to improve mosquito control. Butte County has a huge mosquito problem because of all the standing water in the summer.”

But districts like Camy’s have lost property-tax revenue every year since 1993. Camy estimates that this year, with 13 percent of property-tax revenue going back to the state, the district’s wallet is about $250,000 lighter than it should be.

Last summer, as the number of cases in California was hitting its peak, Gov. Schwarzenegger fast-tracked about $9 million dollars to California vector control districts specifically to fight the virus. Butte County’s three mosquito abatement districts received slightly over $300,000. As far as Camy knows, there’s nothing in the works to provide the district with that kind of relief this year.

Camy says that the one-time funds went to pay for increased personnel, more pesticides and upgraded machinery for crop dusters that fly over area rice fields. The extra effort was especially important to Northern California last year, because the second year of an outbreak tends to be the worst. Though Southern California saw its first case in 2002, Northern California considers 2004 its first year. Camy said there were seven local human cases in 2004, and 25 in 2005.

In all of California, 2003 was the most dramatic. The state logged 2,947 human cases and suffered 63 fatalities. The number dropped to 779 cases in 2004, with 28 fatalities, and rose again in 2005 to 935 cases, with 18 fatalities.

A number of factors have experts worried that this year could be worse than expected, especially for Northern California.

In Butte County, if the temperature rises quickly, especially with so much drenched earth, mosquito breeding will spike, and that could lead to an early and intense West Nile Virus season.

“The big question is: Is this year going to be worse for us up North, so that we get the brunt of it?” asked Camy.

If we get strong north winds this spring, said Camy, and temperatures rise slowly, there’s a chance that Northern California will stick with the trend seen throughout most of the country: a mild first year, a spike in the second year and a general leveling off thereafter.

Camy says six dead birds from Butte County have been tested, but so far, no cases of West Nile Virus have been detected here. The same can’t be said for Orange, Sacramento, San Diego and Santa Clara counties. Those four counties have found 10 dead birds infected with the virus so far, kicking off another season of concern for residents and strapped government agencies.