Why Vail joined the fight for local control around pesticide regulation | VailDaily.com

Why Vail joined the fight for local control around pesticide regulation

Legislative session offers ‘once in a decade’ opportunity to lift state preemption in Colorado’s Pesticide Applicators’ Act

Vail has been working alongside other state groups and municipalities to push for more local control on pesticides. The town believes that the ability to implement more stringent would have a significant benefit on its Restore the Gore efforts.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily archive

Of the many bills being considered in the 2023 Legislative Session, the sunsetting of Colorado’s Pesticide Applicators’ Act is one of them. The bill, which has passed the Senate and is under consideration in the House, would extend the act for another 11 years.

And while Colorado’s Pesticide Act creates important regulations around the use of landscaping chemicals — including chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers — environmental groups and municipalities are concerned that it doesn’t go far enough.

As such, certain organizations and governments are advocating for lawmakers to lift state preemption from the act to allow local governments to enact their own regulations around pesticides instead of relying on the current statewide standard.

Joining these efforts has been Pete Wadden advocating on behalf of the town of Vail. Wadden is the town’s watershed specialist within its environmental sustainability department.

Specifically, he has participated in a coalition with the People and Pollinators Action Network, which is representing numerous communities, nonprofits and groups around the state in the effort to lift state preemption. The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, Wadden said, has also been engaged in advocacy.

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The danger of pesticides

The act and the regulations it provides are “hugely important,” Wadden said.

“If you look at the history of pesticides in the U.S. — dating back to and before Rachel Carson publishing ‘Silent Spring’ in the late 1960s — some of these chemicals were pretty unregulated or untested and were assumed to be safe until proven otherwise,” he added.

Prior to regulation, there were certain pesticides (including, famously, DDT) that were “touted as safe and had unintended consequences on the food chain,” Wadden said.

The National Institute of Health reports that “pesticides can contaminate soil, water, turf and other vegetation,” which can have widespread impacts on the ecosystem.

“In addition to killing insects or weeds, pesticides can be toxic to a host of other organisms including birds, fish, beneficial insects, and non-target plants,” the institute states, adding that treated plants and soil can lead to pesticide runoff in surface water.

When the government began regulating these chemicals in the 1970s, this included the creation of certifications to allow certain professions to use certain chemicals (but not the general public), laws around labels for chemicals including ratings for where and by who they could be used.

The value of local control

The town of Vail has done ongoing streambank restoration projects as part of its Restore the Gore. In addition to educating about pesticides, more regulations could further its efforts.
Courtesy Photo

“Right now in Colorado, the buck stops with the state,” Wadden said. “The preemption on local regulation states that smaller jurisdictions, like the town of Vail or Eagle County for example, cannot adopt pesticide regulations that are more stringent than those in place at the state level.”

As such, advocacy in this legislative session has centered on eliminating the preemption and opening the door to “be able to pass some common sense regulation in Vail to protect in particular Gore Creek from potential harm from pesticides,” Wadden said.

Should this preemption be lifted — and the regulations make it through Vail’s own governmental process — Wadden said this could include exploring creating a “pesticide-free zone” with waterways. Other groups in the state, he said are concerned about the impacts of certain classes of pesticides, including neonicotinoids.

“But in Vail, from my perspective at least, the biggest concern is the beneficial insects that live in Gore Creek that feed the trout and other birds and really form the foundation of that riverine food chain,” Wadden said.

As Vail has worked through its “Restore the Gore” efforts, reducing pesticides has been central to this.

“We had 11 high-priority actions outlined in the Gore Creek Strategic Action Plan, and I think four of them were related to reducing the use of landscaping chemicals,” Wadden said.

Wadden said that the Department of Agriculture’s Surface Water monitoring program took samples from the creek in 2023 and found an insecticide, an herbicide and three other chemicals in the water.

“It’s very clear that we have these chemicals present in Gore Creek’s water and we’re required by the state to try to clean up Gore Creek,” he added.

However, while the state requires the cleanup, “the state also has regulations that kind of tie our hands when it comes to regulating pesticides.”

In the meantime, the town has employed various education and outreach efforts around pesticides, which have proven successful in some ways. It also has been “leading by example,” by eliminating fully applied pesticides in its landscape management.

“That’s actually had a huge impact on Red Sandstone Creek. Red Sandstone Creek has rebounded miraculously,” Wadden said. “We monitor four sites for insect populations on that creek. They failed to meet state standards every year until 2018. It’s our belief that one property up there changed their pesticide application practices. And since 2018, all four of those sites have exceeded state standards.”

While Gore Creek is a “larger and more complex system,” Red Sandstone sets an example of what could be done with the Gore, he added.

“If changing pesticide practices in a small area like that can restore bug populations like flipping a switch, there’s huge potential for us to be able to make real headway with the problem on Gore Creek, if we were empowered to implement some science-based, common sense regulations on pesticides in our community,” Wadden said.

‘Once in a decade’ chance

Efforts to lobby to eliminate state preemption thus far have been unsuccessful. As reported in Colorado Politics earlier in April, lifting preemption was discussed as it passed through the Senate, but any amendments to do so have been unsuccessful.

“It does not look like that’s likely to happen at this go-round,” Wadden said.

“Unfortunately, I think the sunset phase was a once-in-a-decade chance and one of the best ones that we’ve had,” he added.

Arguments for keeping preemption are primarily coming from the chemical industry as well as railroad and electrical companies, Wadden said.

“Their argument is that if preemption were lifted, they would be dealing with a patchwork of regulations across the state,” he said. “It’s particularly concerning for railroads and electrical providers because they treat their power poles and the railroad ties with pesticides to prevent termites and other wood pests. So you can imagine a power line or a railroad that runs across the state would deal with a more complicated suite of regulations if individual municipalities and counties could have their own regs.”

The counter to this, Wadden added, is determining if this “particular industry needs protection from local regulation when so few other industries request or depend on something like that.”

“Vail is a home rule municipality; we have the power to regulate a lot of things in that community. I don’t see why this should be any different, especially when you consider how potentially dangerous and harmful and powerful these chemicals are.”

Until the bill passes, however, the fight will continue. And even if the preemption is not lifted, Wadden seemed optimistic that there might be other opportunities to get local control before the act sunsets again.

“It is not impossible to envision — or it’s not out of the question — to envision a state representative or senator introducing a bill to eliminate the preemption during a future legislative session before the next sunset comes around,” he said.

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