Fly away

Mayor, others want city parks free of harmful chemicals

Sandy Rowley coaxes a honeybee onto her hand near Wingfield Park.

Sandy Rowley coaxes a honeybee onto her hand near Wingfield Park.

In late May, Andy Bass—Reno’s director of parks, recreation and community services—said Wingfield and Barbara Bennett parks would go pesticide-free. When the news came through at a City Council meeting, a local woman named Sandy Rowley kissed a surprised-looking Bass on the cheek as the crowd cheered.

It’s a start, everyone acknowledged, “But we do need to get to 100 percent pesticide-free,” said Mayor Hillary Schieve, who admitted to having “heart palpitations” when Rowley told the council about recent Easter egg hunts on chemical-laden grass.

Reno mostly uses glyphosate, the ubiquitous herbicide found in the weed killer Roundup. (If you’ve done much gardening or paid someone to weed your lawn, odds are you’ve sprayed this stuff, authorized it or specifically decided against it). In March, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer deemed glyphosate a likely carcinogen.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone using the chemical should wear a respirator. Though toxic to aquatic organisms, it “does not enter the environment under normal use,” per the CDC website. “Great care, however, should be given to avoid any additional release, e.g. through inappropriate disposal.”

Rowley believes pesticide exposure made her seriously ill around 18 months ago.

“If you are running down the sidewalk by a park, the city or the county could have just sprayed something highly carcinogenic in that area,” she said. “Your schools, your city playgrounds, your public walking spaces—they’re loaded with chemicals.”

Her attempt last year to make more than 20 Sparks parks and Idlewild in Reno pesticide-free (“Parks and rec,” Sept. 4, 2014 RN&R) got the nod from city officials, but fell through when the scope of work became clear. This time, at Rowley’s urging, a Washington, D.C., group called Beyond Pesticides has offered free training for Reno city staff if they’ll commit to changing their practices. On June 10, the City Council agreed to vet the idea.

As for the cost, “it depends on what we implement,” parks manager Jeff Mann said later. “It may be just a representative number of parks across town. It may be no cost. We may just not spray any product at all, and we may just deal with the weeds manually, or let them go. That’s what council will decide when we take the program back to them.”

Beyond Pesticides doesn’t replace harmful products with less-harmful ones, organization spokesman Drew Toher said.

“Our focus is creating a system that is more resilient to weed pressure, that resists weeds and insects,” he said. “Essentially, we focus on cultural practices, [such as] proper mowing and aeration. … Putting the focus on the health of the soil, the health of the microbes in the soil, is really important in order to create that resilient system.”

In short, a flourishing park may not need chemicals in the first place.

Expenses are likely to increase a bit at first, Toher said, “but they’re more than made up for once the organic system is in place. The costs go down significantly, because you don’t need the consistent product input you had prior. You kind of kick the habit.”