Santa Fe officials haven’t been able to declare victory in their war on weeds.
An unusually wet winter and spring gave birth to bumper crops that forced the city to hire private contractors and pay city crews overtime to tackle the perennial problem. Despite those efforts and noticeable headway in recent weeks, the battle is far from over.
“I know with all the moisture that we’ve had, we’re going to have an increase in the number of weeds and trying to control it,” City Councilor Chris Rivera said Monday. “I do see the crews around the city, but I think the growth is probably faster than they can keep up with right now.”
City Councilor JoAnne Vigil Coppler echoed the sentiment, saying even residents are struggling to keep up at home.
“We’re making progress,” she said. “But dang it, it’s a big city.”
City spokeswoman Lilia Chacon said crews have been whacking weeds six days a week and averaging 23 hours of overtime per affected employee every two-week pay period.
“We have also begun to use temporary workers on our crews to help spread the load,” she said in an email. “A total of 9 have been hired out of the 15 that we are eligible for. This is additional evidence that we take this issue seriously enough to bring on the extra manpower.”
The city is hitting the problem so hard that equipment will need to be replaced.
“Our crews have been working at such a strenuous pace that some of the machines are starting to break down,” Parks and Recreation Director John Muñoz said in a statement. “So far seven of our 15 weed-whackers have broken down, and we’re making repairs and getting replacements.”
In an interview, Muñoz said he inherited a lot of old equipment. Of the city’s five mowers, four were down before the city’s fleet manager got them back into working condition, he said.
“Some machines you could probably use in a big back yard,” he said. “It’s just not something you would use on a commercial basis every day.”
Vigil Coppler questioned whether the city is using the right equipment.
“I’ve seen workers cleaning the parks — big parks — and they’re using weed whackers,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, don’t we have big riding mowers’? You could just ride on those and cut those weeds down and zoom, zoom, zoom.”
Muñoz said his staff is reviewing the department’s tool and equipment needs.
In addition to a rainy spring, part of what’s contributing to the weed problem is a city policy that prioritizes the use of “physical and mechanical controls,” such as mowing and hand weeding, over herbicides, which can only be used as a last resort.
“I don’t think we should go about allowing the use of herbicides, but I think there should be a good reminder that that’s part of why we’re dealing with the situation we are,” Rivera said. “Having weed growth as aggressive as we are is, I guess, one of the side effects of that.”
Chacon said the city doesn’t use poisons to kill weeds because Santa Fe wants to create a clean and green environment.
“This results in a healthier place for us all to live and work but it also takes repeat visits to knock down those tenacious weeds,” she wrote. “The mayor is uncompromising on this point: the city will not be using poisons and we will continue to use the most environmentally-friendly products available. The city is also testing vinegar sprays to discourage regrowth.”
The war on weeds isn’t just the city’s. Some of the overgrown weeds are along roads maintained by the state or on property private landowners are responsible for .
“If your property abuts an overgrown sidewalk, do your part and help clear the weeds,” Chacon wrote. “It’s the law.”
Under city code, property owners are responsible for clearing weeds more than a foot high from their property, as well as along the sidewalk, street or alley adjacent to their land.
The city’s weed-fighting efforts are generating mixed opinions from the public.
“They’ve been clearing the weeds?” Jessica Savage asked in a Facebook post on the Santa Fe Bulletin Board, which has more than 16,000 members. “Based on the fact that I asked, I would say I haven’t noticed any progress.”
Rachael Gallegos Rodriguez said weeds generally have the upper hand.
“We live off tourism, call ourselves the Land of Enchantment, the state capital and it’s not so pretty out there,” she wrote.
Andrew Griego said city workers are “doing the best with what they have.”
“North side does look better than the south as always,” he wrote. “I would like to see the city offer some community cleaning days around my hood (south side) where maybe we could have green [waste] picked up on a planned weekend or day. This would encourage residents to clean yards and take more pride in our town. I would volunteer for that!”
Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year under a back-to-basics platform, called the fight against weeds a losing battle largely because the administration of Mayor Alan Webber and past mayors “have other priorities, and pulling weeds is not a priority.”
“Until you have administrations that care about the whole city and not just their sacred part,” Trujillo wrote, “the city will continue to look as it does.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.