Río Grande farmers, state talk spraying alternative

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Residents and organic farmers in Dixon and surrounding parts of Río Arriba County, along with representatives from the state’s transportation department, went through with a planned meetup to talk about long-term alternatives to spraying herbicides to manage weeds along state roads.

At least 10 residents and five Department of Transportation managers and employees met Tuesday (Oct. 10) for a two-hour walking and driving tour along State Road 68, during which they had a back-and-forth conversation about the effectiveness of the current weed management program and possible alternatives to spraying herbicides.

The walk-through of the state highway along the Río Grande included Dixon, Rinconada and ended in Velarde near the Black Mesa Winery.

In June, several people were sprayed with a cocktail of herbicides by a Department of Transportation truck doing routine noxious weed management. The spraying took place near areas that residents say are dangerously close to the Río Grande.

In the months since, Río Arriba County communities have organized themselves and tapped into progressive networks to fight to make sure their roadways aren’t treated with potentially toxic herbicides.

Some herbicides, although approved by the federal government, can cause illness in vulnerable, chemical-sensitive people, elderly folks and children, the residents argue. Furthermore, they say their orchards and aviaries are at risk of contamination, meaning so are their food supplies and economic livelihoods.

Going through with Tuesday’s tour was the major commitment by the state following a packed meeting in September that was by turns cooperative and contentious.

Both residents and the department called the tour productive.

“We were able to explain our weed management program to those in attendance and also listen to their concerns,” said Emilee Cantrell, spokesperson for the department.

“They were actually listening to us and we were listening to them,” said Loretta Sandoval, an analytical chemist in Río Arriba County and one of the organizers of Tuesday’s meetup. “It felt like an open dialogue.”

“We walked around and looked at where they sprayed. Some of the plants were partially dead on the highway side of the guardrails, but right across the rails, they were still alive. Herbicides are not serving their purposes in the end,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval said the state seemed open to looking at integrated vegetation management strategies, which generally use herbicides only as a last resort and have cut down on the types, amounts and frequency of herbicide use in other places.

“We are really lucky other states have models [for integrated vegetation management], including Colorado. The state can try to implement the start of something like this and that means, for us [in Río Arriba County], we can become a model on some level,” Sandoval said.

In the coming week, Sandoval and other residents will be writing a letter with suggested noxious weed strategies that avoid all herbicides.

“The community [will] send us proposed alternatives. Once we receive that, we will review them,” said the department’s spokesperson.

Sheena Cameron, a chemically sensitive resident, said folks like her are dependent on the local organic farmers not only for the food they produce, but the energy they have brought to this particular fight to eliminate state-sanctioned herbicide use along roads and waterways.

“It really looks like we could use this momentum to keep going,” she said.

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