ALAMOSA — In a special Alamosa Mosquito Control District board meeting yesterday the board voted 4-1 to purchase a plane for aerial spraying.
Newly elected board member Dr. Bill Brinton voted against the purchase after urging the board to defer its decision, and board members DJ Myers, Pat Steenburg, Scott Caton and by phone chairman Larry Sveum voted for it.
Public comments from those attending the special meeting came down on both sides of the issue with some audience members opposing the purchase and others recommending it. In addition, the district received 45 calls in the last three days to its hotline number, and 43 of those were in favor of aerial spraying and 2 against.
Myers said she also canvassed about 50 people and only encountered one person who was against spraying.
In the past the district has contracted out the aerial spraying, but with the retirement of the district’s long-time contractor and the unavailability of another one, the district board decided to purchase a plane and operate the aerial program itself. The board had included $150,000 in the budget and last evening approved the airplane purchase plus associated equipment for up to $140,000 from the former contractor.
Myers explained that the district has performed aerial spraying since the 1960’s and only flies during certain conditions such as calm winds of no more than 10 miles per hour and at times when mosquito levels have reached critical numbers.
“We have an amazing program,” she said. She said the district operates over an area the size of Salt Lake City but with a much smaller budget.
Steenburg said the district averaged $53,000 a year for the contractor for the aerial program in the past, not including chemicals. After the upfront purchase of about $135,000, he said, the district is looking at about $36,000 a year to operate the plane, which would be a $17,000 savings over the previous annual costs.
He said if the district discontinued its aerial program it would affect not only the rural residents where the majority of the spraying occurs but city residents who would see the influx of mosquitoes from outside the town.
Karen Lemke, who ran unsuccessfully for the mosquito board in the recent election, said there was no evidence to support that.
Alamosa Mosquito Control District Manager Teyler Hurst said the district had no in-house studies, but “it’s common sense.”
Rick Needham, who lives in the county, said, “you can fly my place every day. Those things are thick out in the county.”
He said he remembered a time when a person would go out in the fields with blue pants on and they would be gray with mosquitoes.
“Get the plane. Fly the plane. That’s my input,” he said.
Myers said her father came from San Luis where people had to wear scarves when they went outside in the summer because of the mosquitoes.
She added that she and her children enjoy being outside without being swarmed by mosquitoes.
“That’s why I became a part of the board,” she said. “To me it’s about balance. It’s not about trying to kill every single mosquito or about nuking everything. It’s about trying to get people who want to be outside the ability to be outside. We have a very short summer.”
Jeannie Crowder, who lives in East Alamosa, said she could tell the difference from when that area was sprayed by plane and when it was not. She added that her father-in-law who lives in Waverly is 84, and if he were to contract West Nile Virus, she is not sure how well he would be able to fight against it.
“It’s preventable. That’s why I am here because I am for it. I want to see the spraying continue and I really think in the rural areas it makes a difference,” she said.
Audience members asked about the incidence of culex tarsalis, the mosquito species that is one of the main carriers of the West Nile Virus. Hurst said generally culex are most active in mid-June but this year because the weather is warmer earlier, district staff are seeing culex already. He said of the 12 species, culex comprises about 50 percent of what is present in the district now.
Hurst said the aerial spraying would be used both for larvacide and adulticide and if the district already had the plane this year, “right now we could have flown adulticide tonight.”
He said the aerial spraying would have helped with larvacide this year as well, and to complete the same amount of treatment on the ground takes crews considerably longer.
The group discussed the number of confirmed West Nile Virus cases and why there might not have been more.
Hurst said, “It was because we were here doing our job.”
There was discussion about whether there might have been human cases of West Nile that were not listed on official records because the test for it was expensive so medical staff may have decided not to perform it, especially since there is no cure for it.
Brinton said negative cases are not reported, so there may have been tests performed but the results were negative. He said in his experience as a physician he had not encountered a reluctance to perform tests when they were needed, and Dr. Joel Kaufman, who was in the audience, agreed. He said before he retired he worked in the emergency room and tests were performed if they were needed, regardless of anyone’s ability to pay.
He added that he had tested for West Nile twice and they were both negative.
Brinton said, “I am not aware of any evidence that spraying for mosquitoes reduces West Nile Virus. There may be some evidence in Colorado that it actually increases the risk.”
He said the only study he was aware of was in Loveland.
Myers said her daughter became ill with West Nile Virus and she asked for a test to be performed but medical staff refused. She said her daughter was sick for a month and a half.
During the public comment before the vote last evening, several other people shared their comments about aerial spraying specifically and mosquito control generally.
Trudi Kretsinger, for example, said she was concerned about the use of chemicals, specifically the overuse of chemicals or the use of chemicals in an untargeted manner. She said chemical drift could more easily be controlled with ground spraying than aerial spraying.
She is an organic farmer who lives outside the mosquito district boundaries.
“Chemicals present much greater problems in our populace than mosquitoes do,” she said.
She added that pests develop resistance to chemicals over time so they increase in number and strength.
She also questioned the financial soundness of the district purchasing a plane and whether it was a prudent or responsible use of taxpayers’ money.
Keitha Woodard, 82, has lived in Alamosa since 1956, before mosquito control. She said there were times then she could not even let her children go out of the house because the mosquitoes were so bad. After mosquito control efforts began, there were still problems but they became less and less, she said.
She and her husband bought property outside of town, and they encountered significant mosquito problems, especially since the property was by the river and had ample breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
“Without the aerial spraying, I will not be able to walk out on my territory,” she said.
Brinton asked about how the chemicals used on mosquitoes affect bees. Hurst said the label has a warning for bees on it, but the district shuts off spraying operations around bee hives and generally sprays when the bees are not out and about.
“We don’t want to be the cause of a dead hive,” Hurst said. “We try to be as cautious on that as we can.”
Another audience concern was the process for opting out of being sprayed, with the suggestion being given that people should be able to opt out, even without a medical condition and doctor’s order.
The district’s mill levy was also brought up, and Steenburg said the current levy was approved by voters, and the district has voluntarily reduced it the last two years.
Lemke suggested that the district should suspend aerial spraying this year and collect data. She said she knew of other fully integrated districts like Boulder that did not use aerial spraying.
Brinton said other mosquito control districts in the state such as La Junta are moving away from aerial spraying.
He questioned whether the costs presented for the purchase were inclusive and whether a 1976 aircraft might have the potential for maintenance costs that were not figured into these expenses.
Sveum said the aircraft would be a capital purchase that could be recouped in the future, and Steenburg added it would be an asset to the district.
“If we don’t sell it, we will have 10-12 years service,” Sveum said.
Myers said if the district does not buy the plane, the owner has another offer pending. She made the motion to purchase the plane.
Brinton urged the board to vote down the motion and defer action until the county had been consulted. Hurst said he had provided the information about the plane purchase to the county. Brinton said county officials told him they thought someone should call them and talk to them about it.