Critics oppose herbicide use, tree removal at Lake Hodges

Critics oppose herbicide use, tree removal at Lake Hodges
A group of residents in a Del Dios neighborhood near Lake Hodges voice their concerns with members of the nonprofit Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, which is overseeing the Oak Woodland Fire Fuel Reduction Project. Photo by Tony Cagala

ESCONDIDO — Tensions are rising in a Del Dios community over a project involving the removal of several trees and the spraying of herbicides around the Lake Hodges reservoir.

A city advocate has had to step in to smooth “testy and personal” interactions between some residents and the nonprofit group leading the project known as the Oak Woodland Fire Fuel Reduction Project.

The nonprofit Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve has been in charge of the project, which has been removing eucalyptus trees and other non-native species from around the reservoir, a source of drinking water for the city of San Diego, residents in the Olivenhain Municipal Water District and the Santa Fe Irrigation District.

Towards the end of September, residents and members of the nonprofit met at the southwest portion of the lake to mark a number of large remaining eucalyptus trees for removal.

But the meeting became contentious when residents began questioning project organizers on the amount of trees that had come down already, the trees that would come down and the herbicides being used near the water.

Mike Kelly, a board member and conservation chair of the Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve, said the opposition first started when the big trees started being taken down.

“This is the first of a whole series of projects like this — the first one that actually generated some opposition — and I think it’s because these trees were in the view shed of people in the community and they didn’t like the fact that so many big trees were coming down,” Kelly said.

New opposition arose recently over the use of herbicides, mainly glyphosate, a chemical found in weed killing products as Roundup, which is being sprayed to keep tree saplings from re-sprouting.

Michelle Heaton, a Del Dios resident since 1978, said she wasn’t in agreement with the nonprofit’s use of spraying glyphosate on the grounds, adding that they’ll have to spray it for several years to prevent saplings from sprouting.

“This is not our land, we understand that,” Heaton said. “However, it’s been open to the public forever. This is a potable source of drinking water. (They’re) using known carcinogenics next to and on the ground at the lake shore.”

But according to Lan Wiborg, deputy director of long range planning with the city of San Diego, the city complies with state law regarding the use of herbicides near drinking water reservoirs.

The city takes water samples on a quarterly basis, Wiborg said, with the most recent testing being done on June 6.

Samples are analyzed for glyphosate at the city’s water quality laboratory using U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved methods, explained Wiborg.

The laboratory detection limit is 10 parts per billion.  Glyphosate, according to Wiborg, has not been detected in any of the samples, including the most recent sampling dates of Jan. 5, April 6, and June 6, of this year.

“The most recent analysis revealed that no herbicides were detected,” said Wiborg. “The USEPA has set a maximum contaminant level for glyphosate in drinking water of 700 parts per billion.  This level is judged to be protective of human health.”

Around Hodges, the project is using two methods of applying the herbicides — the first is distributing glyphosate through a backpack sprayer and the other, by painting another herbicide called garlon onto tree stumps, a method known as “cut stump.”

Lance Cottington has lived near the lake for about nine years.

He is part of the grass roots group of residents that are contending against the tree removal and spraying.

“We just feel like it’s too much, too quick, it’s ill-conceived and not properly thought out,” Cottington said of the project.

“This lake is a very bio diverse area…we feel that (the project) is endangering that diversity,” Cottington said. “You can’t come into a place that is a world-renowned bird area and take out 60 to 80 percent of the trees and think you’re not making a difference. I don’t see how you can do that.” He added: “We feel the trees definitely need attention. The whole place needs to be attended to. It needs to be attended to in a proper forestry manner.”

“The trees and other plants being removed around the reservoir are invasive and not native,” said Wiborg. “The presence of these non-native plant species affects the health of the reservoir. The project will remove invasive and non-native plants such as eucalyptus, palm trees, pepper trees, Arundo, and acacia within a 90-acre project area around the reservoir. A significant project benefit will be that the restored drainages around the reservoir will attenuate urban runoff flows and remove pollutants, thus, helping to protect water quality in the city’s reservoir.”

Cottington said that he and other residents feel the city of San Diego, which owns the reservoir, has neglected its duties in taking care of its water resources for years.

San Diego officials said the city maintains the property, in part, through the Department of Public Utilities’ invasive plant control program as well as through annual brush management on property adjacent to residences for fire fuel reduction.

According to Wiborg, partnering with non-governmental organizations makes good sense for Public Utilities and the water rate payers.

“When other entities are awarded funding to perform management activities on city property, this represents a savings to the water rate payer,” Wiborg said. “The Friends of Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve has a 25-year proven record for habitat restoration projects and their goals are in alliance with those of Public Utilities.”

The nonprofit has received grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service for the project.

At this time, there’s no schedule set for any of the band of big eucalyptus trees to come down on the southwest portion of the lake until significant fire dangers have passed,          Kelly said.

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