Legislation pushes local control of pesticides

By Marianne Goodland

State Capitol Correspondent

Democratic lawmakers at the state Capitol have started their efforts to allow local governments to regulate pesticides, despite testimony from farmers and their allies that pests and weeds don’t respect county boundaries.

House Bill 1178, sponsored by Reps. Cathy Kipp of Fort Collins and Meg Froelich of Greenwood Village, would allow local governments to regulate which pesticides could be used within their borders.

The bill has been years in the making, but Republicans and rural Democrats have managed to keep state control of pesticides as the standard, including last year, when the state’s pesticide applicators’ act was renewed.

The review by a state agency charged with making recommendations on changes came down in favor of keeping pesticide regulations at the state level, which said “repealing the state uniform regulation of pesticides law would likely be contrary” to state regulatory interests, which “asks for the least restrictive form of regulation consistent with the public interest.”

Kipp, who is running for the state Senate in November, was a cosponsor of the 2023 legislation, with hopes of getting local control of pesticides into that bill. But the bill’s committee assignment – the House and Senate agriculture committees – meant no such change would be acceptable.

Two other senators, including Sen. Lisa Cutter, D-Littleton, tried a sleight of hand trick late in the session, attempting to sneak local control of pesticides into a bill on appliances. That hearing was going on at the same time the pesticide applicators bill was being reviewed by the House ag committee, so those who would have advocated against local control didn’t know about the other measure.

After an outcry from rural lawmakers and agricultural interests, the Senate Appropriations Committee removed the amendments, effectively killing the proposal.

Cutter, however, is a sponsor of the 2024 bill to put pesticides into the hands of local governments.

HB 1178 was sent to a friendly committee instead of agriculture, where it would face almost certain defeat: the House Energy & Environment Committee, which Kipp chairs.

The bill passed on an 8-5 vote, with one Democrat joining the Republicans on a “no” vote.

Those testifying against the bill, which included many from the agriculture industry, easily outnumbered those in favor.

Kipp, whose background is in teaching, not agriculture, insisted during the Feb. 15 hearing the bill contains sufficient exemptions to protect agriculture, although that drew skepticism from those representing the ag industry.

She noted local governments had authority over pesticides up until 2006, when it shifted to state control.

“We tried to consider when crafting this bill [that it would be] a limited expansion of local control.”

Some local governments want buffer zones, others want just the ability to do notifications, she told the committee.

She noted local governments cannot pass ordinances that would conflict with federal regulations, an amendment suggested by a “green” pesticide company.

HB 1178 gives governments limited ability to come up with pesticide ordinances, she said. What communities would do if the bill passed, she said, is to protect valuable ecosystems, such as waterways, buffer zones for pollinators, and vulnerable populations.

Froelich told the committee the bill does not change or amend the pesticide applicators’ act nor change the authority of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, which does back the bill, according to its lobbyist, who testified in favor.

“We recognize the importance of agriculture” with a broad exemption for agriculture,” Froelich said. “We heard from the ag community about challenges for ag producers” and to make sure local governments could not pass ordinances impacting ag.

“We are sincere in our efforts to create an ag exemption that works,” she said, noting many farms cross county boundaries.

The bill also adds exemptions for water conservation districts and for irrigation ditches and other water infrastructure.

“You’ve heard from the ag community,” said Rep. Ron Weinberg, R-Loveland, but he questioned whether the bill sponsors ever listened.

“We are happy to add additional language,” Kipp replied, but that didn’t happen during the committee hearing.

The bill is opposed by every major ag industry group, including Colorado Farm Bureau, fruit and vegetable growers, the livestock association and the sugar beet association.

Rep. Gabe Evans, R-Fort Lupton, pointed out that Japanese beetles have threatened the Palisade peach crop in the past, and if Grand Junction, for example, passed ordinances to stop using pesticides that eradicated beetles, those pests would migrate to Palisade.

Kipp and Froelich both scoffed at the idea, claiming Grand Junction would never do that.

Evans asked whether a neighboring jurisdiction could take a stance against pesticides that would impact ag producers, such as Boulder County restricting pesticides that could impact ag producers in next-door Weld County, the state’s number one ag-producing county.

“You’d have to leave that up to local officials,” Kipp said.

Rep. Junie Joseph, D-Boulder, questioned the need for so many exemptions for ag and water.

Pete Wadden, representing the town of Vail, said the town council unanimously supports the measure to be better stewards of Gore Creek, which is an impaired waterway. It cost the town $5 million to improve the waterway, but the last step is to take certain pesticides further away from the stream.

The federal government has failed to protect pollinators, and state regulators don’t have the resources to address the problem, which should now go to local governments, according to Joyce Kennedy of the People & Pollinators Action Network.

According to Boulder City Councilman Ryan Schuchard, HB 1178 has the support of the Colorado Municipal League, which represents 270 cities and towns across Colorado, including many on the Eastern Plains, such as Haxtun, Fleming and Yuma.

Many of those testifying against came from the lawn care and pest control industry. Jason Schmidt, representing Colorado Arborists & Lawn Care Professionals, said making pesticides subject to local control will not be safe. He also suggested the bill could create a “black market,” which would put pesticides into the hands of people who aren’t trained to use them.

Pesticide applicators said that if they are not allowed to use appropriate pesticides, what they will use will require heavier and repeated use of other pesticides.

Then there’s the science aspect. Paul Sibley, representing the Rocky Mountain Golf

Course Superintendents Association, noted the Department of Agriculture has the science-based expertise to handle pesticides.

“Local governments lack the resources, expertise and technical capacity to enforce those regulations or to stay current with industry standards,” he said.

Ginger Davidson from the Rocky Mountain Agribusiness Association said her members, agricultural retailers, provide equipment as well as pesticides.

“Weeds, disease and insects don’t stop at county lines,” she said. A farmer could hire a custom applicator to spray three wheat fields, all in different counties. The applicator would have to change out tanks every time they cross a jurisdiction. She also expressed skepticism at the bill’s attempts at an exemption for agriculture.

Robert Mari of Merino is a fourth-generation farmer, with 34 years growing sugar beets. He does pesticide applications on his farm. “I live where I apply, I have my whole life.” He also grows in Morgan, Logan and Washington counties. The bill creates more confusion, he said.

“We pride ourselves at providing the safest, most affordable food supply in the world,” said Erik Frank of Platteville, also a fourth-generation sugar beet farmer. He blamed activists for casting farmers in a bad light, and said regulating pesticides should remain with the experts at the department of agriculture.

Farmers will have to find less safe ways to regulate pests under HB 1178, such as returning to mechanical tillage, which would release carbon into the atmosphere and more burning of fossil fuels. That’s a step backwards, Frank said.

He also questioned why, if the bill has so many exemptions for ag, so many ag groups are opposed. “Do you even listen to the farmers?” he asked.

Dr. Rebecca Larson, chief scientist for Western Sugar Cooperative, gave the committee members a history and science lesson.

Local control has already failed miserably, she said. Unscientific public opinion forced Boulder County commissioners to enact pesticide bans on county-owned land, which is allowed under state law. After five years and $1 million, the county’s lands showed poor soil health, reduced surface water quality and greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2016, a new group of commissioners overturned that ordinance, she said.

HB 1178 now heads to the House Appropriations Committee.