Iowa City area works to cut back on pesticides

Yards for Kids sign shown in a front lawn. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

Iowa City’s efforts to cut back on spraying pesticides on public lands and school grounds have been recognized by Good Neighbor Iowa, a statewide project through the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education that promotes pesticide-free lawn maintenance.

“In the mid-90s the legislature took away municipalities’ ability to legislate pesticide and herbicide use,” Iowa City Council Member Rockne Cole said. “We are using the authority that we have: one, to advocate; and two, in terms of the city about a year ago banning pesticide and herbicide use on all municipal properties including ballfields.”

Cole said public pressure led the school district to do the same.

“Community members can have a huge impact if they’re focused, if they’re targeted, if they do their homework,” he said.

Since Good Neighbor Iowa began reaching out a month and a half ago, they’ve identified two Iowa school districts — Iowa City and Waverly-Shell Rock — that have committed to reducing their use of pesticides.

Studies show an association between exposure to pesticides early in life and pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“American Academy of Pediatrics says, ‘Hey, don’t do this!,’ but we’re still doing it. There’s a disconnect between science and action,” Kamyar Enshayan, director of the UNI Center for Energy & Environmental Education and leader of the Good Neighbor Iowa project, said.

Enshayan said the center is working on a variety of projects that aim to put scientific principles into practice, including a statewide initiative to help communities develop an energy plan that allows them to move away from fossil fuels, and ecological restoration efforts aimed at biodiversity.

In total, Iowa City pledged to avoid pesticide use on 190 acres of public land, mostly parks and playgrounds. Enshayan said he hopes the actions of local officials will inspire Iowa City residents to ditch pesticides at home as well.

During a press conference at Iowa City’s Farmers Market in May, Good Neighbor Iowa handed out yard signs so market-goers could declare their lawns pesticide-free and shared information about the dangers of common lawn chemicals.

“It’s a challenge, but its very doable. I guess my message to schools, to parks, to childcare centers is this: Washington did not make us go spray our lawns. It’s entirely our own doing and we can change that,” he said.

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Enshayan offered a few tips: don’t mow too short (which weakens grass, giving other plants the upper hand), seed extra grass seed and occasionally add fertilizer like compost. The same goes for athletic fields, he said, however they require additional maintenance such as aeration because the soil gets compacted. Good Neighbor Iowa’s website also offers resources for maintaining a chemical-free lawn.

Enshayan said Good Neighbor Iowa is trying to change the cultural habit of expecting a lawn to be a monoculture.

“The challenge here is that people are embarrassed because there’s dandelions which means our culture tells them they’re not taking care of their property. We’re trying to change that. We’re trying to say you’re a good neighbor by not spraying,” Enshayan said. “You are protecting child health, you are protecting water quality. This current habit is hurting children, hurting Iowa.”

Good Neighbor Iowa has so far focused on schools, since that reduces pesticide exposure for a large number of kids, Enshayan said. They hope to reach out to more parks and childcare centers this summer, he said, and they’re working with the cities of Cedar Falls, Dubuque and Ottumwa, where the city committed to limit pesticide application to only three acres. Participating areas are mapped on Good Neighbor Iowa’s website. Enshayan said some of the mapped locations may have already been pesticide-free but are now being recognized for it.

Enshayan said the group has received an overwhelmingly positive response to the project.

“County parks and city parks, they’re very receptive and it’s just a matter of them looking into their operation and saying, ‘Hmm, where can we easily not spray?'” he said.

A sign warned people of pesticide application outside Van Allen Hall on the University of Iowa Campus on June 9, 2017. — photo by Lauren Shotwell

Cole — who noted that his own lawn has been pesticide-free since he moved in 20 years ago — said he will advocate for more signage on chemical-free public areas to raise awareness about the issue, and hopes to see the University of Iowa follow suit.

“In terms of the university it’s extraordinarily disappointing that they continue to use chemicals around the old capitol,” Cole said. “Cosmetic pesticide use is just unconscionable in my view.”

University of Iowa Landscape Services Grounds Supervisor Nate Strabala said in an email to Little Village that about one-fifth of campus is treated with some form of herbicide or pesticide and all treated areas are also sprayed with an organic compost tea.

“I think when used properly there’s a place for pesticides in our management plan,” Strabala said. “I also think there are areas on campus that should remain pesticide-free.”

Strabala said the university has reduced its use of pesticides over the years. If the school were to go 100 percent pesticide-free, “that decision could ultimately come from as high up as the president’s office, but would more than likely be a collective decision between multiple parties within the university,” Strabala said.