County leaders to consider reducing use of chemical herbicides for weed control after environmental groups voice concerns

photo by: Mike Yoder

A monarch butterfly clings to a milkweed plant in the Butterfly Garden behind Foley Hall. Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo.

Following concerns from local environmental groups, county leaders are going to reconsider the county’s level of chemical herbicide use and discuss potential reductions.

The Douglas County Commission was scheduled to approve the county’s annual Noxious Weed Management Plan as part of its consent agenda Wednesday, but members of local environmental groups voiced concerns. The county uses chemicals to control weeds in unincorporated areas, has agreements with some other entities for the same purpose, and sells chemicals to the public for weed control.

Members of the Sierra Club-Wakarusa Group, Lawrence Ecology Teams United in Sustainability and the Sustainability Action Network submitted a letter with their concerns to the commission and also spoke during public comment. Teresa Wilke, a member of all three groups, told the commission that she was glad to see that the largest volume of chemicals being used were not as negative as some, but that she’d like to see the county emphasize alternatives to chemical weed killers, among other issues.

“Chemicals are indiscriminate killers; they kill good things, not just weeds,” Wilke said. “They kill birds, bugs, fish and people.”

Kansas law requires that counties manage certain noxious weeds, and the county’s Noxious Weed Management Plan indicates the county spent about $500,000 in 2020 on chemicals, personnel and other expenses for the program. The plan includes the estimated acreage of noxious weeds on both county and private land and lists all the chemicals used and sold by the county, including 2-4 D, ammonium sulfate, glyphosate, triclopyr and others.

The letter lists 10 comments and concerns, including the need for a policy that uses chemicals as a last resort, protocols for handling chemical drift and chemical trespass, and referral or educational training on the use of nonchemical weed management practices. Concerns included in the letter were water contamination from runoff and the eradication of milkweed and pollinators.

Tony Schmidt, a member of LETUS, said he lives on 40 acres south of Clinton Lake and he’s been very concerned about the decreasing number of insects. He said he has planted 15 acres of native grasses on his property to try to help the issue, but that the general practice among private landowners seems to be to resort to chemicals with little regard for how much is used. The county notifies property owners of requirements to remove noxious weeds and sells the chemicals to the public, so Schmidt said if any entity has any control of the issue, it would seem to be the county.

“The general attitude by farmers and landowners is to just spray the dickens out of everything, and to get rid of milkweed,” Schmidt said. “And that concerns me terribly, that we’re not being more sensitive to insect life, plant life, to fish, to birds.”

Monarch butterflies are just one insect that feeds on milkweed as they migrate through Lawrence.

Clint Hornberger, who has a farm in south-central Douglas County, offered another view. Hornberger said he’s received the letters from the county about noxious weeds and has purchased chemicals from the county to apply at his farm. Hornberger said he thought there were a lot of misconceptions about the amount of chemicals being used, and while mowing can be done in some cases, he thinks he would not be alone in wanting to see the chemical control of weeds continue. Hornberger also said some noxious weeds could take over and decrease habitat for wildlife and change the ecology of an area.

“That’s why we manage them,” Hornberger said. “… If Johnson grass or bindweed would happen to take over in an area, it chokes out all the beneficial plants and flora that’s there for other animals, the native species.”

In addition to the required noxious weed control, Public Works Director Chad Voigt said the county also sprays herbicides around guardrails and road signs and to eradicate weeds such as dandelions in parkland. However, Voigt emphasized that what the county sprays is eclipsed by the lawn chemicals sprayed by property owners within the City of Lawrence and what is sprayed on farmland and private land in the county.

“I think there’s a lot of ground to be covered in those areas,” Voigt said, noting that experienced people are applying chemicals in the county and some of the amounts being used are extremely low.

Alan Hollinger, director of the county’s noxious weed division, said that 90% of the chemical quantities in the county’s purchase order were for sale to county residents.

In response to the concerns, Commission Chair Shannon Portillo asked about creating a document that could be linked to the plan that shares information about alternatives to chemical weed control, as well as information about chemical drift and accountability. Commissioner Patrick Kelly, noting the county’s STAR (Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System) rating was low in this area, said he would like to see the county set goals for chemical reduction and strategize ways to address the amount of chemicals being applied by private landowners.

“How do we target the real problem, rather than saying these are the reports we have to file so let’s file them?” Kelly said, referring to annual reports required by the state. “How do we dig in a little deeper to understand it a little more?”

Kelly suggested the commission consider potential chemical reduction goals as part of a broader conversation that includes Lawrence-Douglas County Sustainability Director Jasmin Moore. Other commissioners agreed, and the commission voted unanimously to defer the Noxious Weed Management Plan and further discuss the issue at a meeting in two weeks.


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