Herbicide use on City roads: Safe or Hazardous?

By Geoff Coleman and Roderick Benns

Herbicide use on City roads: Safe or Hazardous?

Some residents have noticed signs of herbicide use along the shoulders of Kawartha Lakes’ roads and wonder what the consequences are of spraying to control vegetation – and if it even need to be done in the first place.

Denis Turcott is one such individual. Driving from his Newmarket home to his seasonal property in the Kawarthas, he became alarmed when he saw dead vegetation — obviously treated with herbicide — at the sides of major roads in proximity to watercourses and wetlands.

In the interest of safety, vegetation is trimmed back from the shoulders of Kawartha Lakes roadways. However, when cutting back vegetation the equipment used will not operate around, or over, a post, guard rail or bridge. At those points in order to control the weeds, pesticides are sprayed.

That’s why often it is easy to see pesticide use under posts or guard rails. However, posts and guard rails are often placed where the terrain drops off – and usually that means there is water of some sort.

The Advocate checked some random locations with Turcott in the north Kawarthas, revealing a mixed bag of spraying practices. At one bridge, vegetation was obviously controlled by trimming up until the guardrails started. From that point to the bridge, weeds were killed by spraying. The application of herbicide stopped as the land gave way to the banks of a large creek and resumed on the other side of the water. Because it stopped short of the watercourse, nothing appeared to be sprayed directly into the water.

A second survey was done at a marsh area on Highway 121. The two-lane road was built on an elevated roadbed dissecting the wetland, so there is marsh on either side of the highway. The roadside drops off sharply and it is not far to water. This entire stretch was sprayed, and while vegetation is not dead at the waterline, the fringe of life next to the water is very narrow — barely a metre at most between dead plants and the wetlands. It’s not hard to imagine that runoff finds its way into the water.

A third spot showed evidence of spray herbicide applied to an extensive stretch of wetland/marsh area along County road 45.

While no one argues that we should not attempt to control vegetation posing a safety concern, Turcott’s observations do raise some questions.

The biggest might be to ask what alternatives there are to spraying.

Other jurisdictions have paved under the posts and pillars to keep the weeds down; others have placed stone to prevent weed growth; some have trimmed it, indicating that there must be some type of equipment that will reach over the guard rail and trim what’s there.

Oliver Vigelius, manager, public works roads operations for the City of Kawartha Lakes, confirms there are alternatives.

“Mechanical control is possible by having crews of employees hand brush around the structures. This method is not preferred for several reasons. It places employees into a hazardous situation with oncoming traffic, takes employees away from other road maintenance activities, (and) is time consuming and inefficient because the same location will need to be re-visited on multiple occasions. It is also more expensive than roadside spraying,” says Vigelius.

Vigelius says roadside spraying of guiderails “provides longer lasting effects with only one visit per season.”

“All of the guiderail spraying is done by hand wand application. This type of application allows for focused spraying with little to no overspray. There are no legislated buffer zones for this type of application because there is very little to no overspray risk. Spraying is more cost effective than hand brushing.”

He notes that the City contracts spraying work to a company specializing in roadside and corridor vegetation control, a company is “fully compliant” with the environmental legislation concerning pesticide application.

“We do not engage in boom spraying or other forms of wide spread herbicide application. All of the roadside spraying performed for the City is done with hand wand application in an effort to minimize the amount released into the environment.”

Vigelius says that hard surface treatments surrounding the guide rails to keep down unwanted vegetation is an option for new installations.

“But retrofitting the municipality’s extensive network of guide rail and would constitute a multi-year capital improvement project that is not feasible with current budget constraints.”

1 Comment

  1. Dave Valentine says:

    Took me back to my first job as Assistant County Engineer for the County of Victoria – as it then was. At that time the County had a weed inspector to ensure weeds that might infiltrate crops were cut or sprayed. A lot of money was spent on roadside spraying
    At the time Rachel Carson published her book ‘Silent Spring’ and I tried to convince council to cut instead of spray, but economics won out, although one foreman, the late and much-missed Bert North, did cut weeds wherever practical.
    Interesting to see blooming roadsides now and Milkweed being planted to support the Monarch Butterflies.

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