Concerns about the use of a potentially dangerous herbicide to clear vegetation from several town water channels have been raised for years, but the Leesburg Town Council this week is putting an end to the practice. The alternatives will be expensive and, perhaps, creative.
In recent years, a town contractor has used Aquaneat, an aquatic herbicide containing glyphosate, to control vegetation growth along streambank floodways. While widely used by municipalities as a highly effective—and cost effective—weed killer, growing concerns about the potential cancer-causing effects of glyphosate have triggered a push to stop use of the product.
The town’s Environmental Advisory Committee started raising the concerns about the practice more than five years ago, but its latest push has the council’s attention.
During their work session Monday night, council members unanimously agreed that the town should stop using the chemical. That quashed the planned June application at three town water channels, which was anticipated to cost $14,400.
However, the town still needs to keep the channels clear. For a section of Town Branch between Dry Mill Road and South King Street, the vegetation control is a FEMA mandate. Overall, the work covers about 3.5 acres.
During Monday’s briefing, Director of Public Works and Capital Projects Renée M. LaFollette said she doesn’t have the staff to manually cut back the weeds and, even if she did, the rocky terrain leads to too many work injuries, putting the department in a tighter bind. Hiring a contractor to trim the vegetation is expected to cost $42,785 annually. Switching to an organic weed killer is expected to cost more than $95,000 because of its limited effectiveness and requirement of more frequent applications.
For the Town Branch section, residents of the nearby townhouses on Carriage Way, who also raised concerns about use of the herbicide, have suggested they could pick up the work on a volunteer basis. That’s not an option staff is recommending.
The alternative that generated the most interest in the council’s debate was a surprising one. According to the staff report, it would cost only $30,000 annually to deploy herds of goats to chomp up the problem.
Public Works Manager Charles A. Mumaw said that he has come around to the concept. “A year ago, I was the first person who said absolutely not,” he told the council.
While the cost of the vegetation control will at least double as a result of the council’s decision, members said use of the chemical was a valid public safety concern.
“We can always deal with the dollars. We can’t replace lives,” Councilman Ron Campbell said.
And the longer the conversation continued, the more council members lined behind the goat option.
“My vote would be goats,” said Council member Susanne Fox. Even Vice Mayor Marty Martinez, watching the meeting online while on a trip to Arizona, texted his support for the goat option.
Under that plan, a contractor would bring in a small herd of goats that would be fenced in an area of the stream bank. They would pretty much eat everything in their pen, starting with their favorites, such as poison ivy and poison oak, and then chewing up the rest. After their work is done, the fence would be moved to another area of the stream bank. Depending on the weather, the goats would be put to work two or three times a year.
Will there be goats? In the end, that decision will be left to Town Manager Kaj Dentler and his staff. He said they’ll continue to evaluate the contractor options and that the goat herd may be best if first used as a test case.