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Waders On, Spray Gun Loaded in War on Arundo

Enveloping the riparian areas along the many waterways of Shasta County is the sort of lush greenery that makes living in the far north state enviable. But some of that vegetation, like the invasive, creek-choking arundo plant, puts its environment in danger — and Randy Smith has declared war.

“Before treatment, fully 40 percent of the east Stillwater Creek flow volume was occupied by arundo. The effects were becoming catastrophic,” Smith said, estimating that only 3 to 5 percent of the waterway originally present in Shasta County is left.

At a glance, arundo, or “giant reed,” isn’t half bad. Found growing in dense patches or thickets and primarily in riparian habitats, the hollow, bamboo-like cane is pleasant to the eye. Its resilience to moisture is why the cane is used widely in reeds for woodwind instruments.

But arundo is a bit of a bully. It grows fast and tall – a mature system can grow four inches a day in late July. Missionaries brought the cane to California in 1968 for erosion control, but the effects were devastatingly adverse, Smith said.

In its late-summer peak season, the leaves of arundo canes lay down over the waterways, essentially creating dams and providing a haven for mosquito habitat. Moreover, because of its high silica content, arundo leaves are highly flammable, even when green. It is widely believed that the Southern California fires of 2003 and 2007 were heavily driven by arundo.

“Arundo was something we certainly wanted to focus on,” said Shasta County Agricultural Commissioner Mary Pfieffer, who oversees the Weed Management Area. “It’s very invasive … we didn’t want it to spread any further. Randy got really involved in the eradication efforts and became the organizational force leader.”

Smith had retired from his medical practice in 1998 and became part of the Rotary Club of Redding the next year. “When I joined the environmental protection committee, they did stuff like pick up litter at Whiskeytown once a year,” Smith said. “But I thought that with a club of 200 people, we should be more effective.”

An army veteran, Smith refers to his efforts in militaristic terms. To date, there have been nine arundo “wars,” involving many people and resources at once, and hundreds of smaller “skirmishes” on arundo.

Smith, a retired anesthesiologist, is the chairperson of Redding Rotary Club’s environmental committee and the leader of its Stream Team. It has proved incredibly effective, said Shannon Waters of the California Coastal Commission.

“In 2009, Randy and the Rotary Club’s Stream Team mobilized 404 volunteers and removed 600 pounds of debris from Redding’s creeks and streams. Inland sites usually have lower turnout, but what those volunteers are able to accomplish is impressive,” Waters said.

Smith estimates victory on arundo by next year, at which time Shasta will be the only warm county in California without an arundo problem. It’s a good thing Smith’s not daunted by a lack of funding for the fight, however. 

In 2007, the Shasta County Weed Management Area obtained a grant for $42,985, specifically for the eradication of arundo in the Stillwater Creek area. That amount is peanuts compared to what the removal is expected to cost: A 2003 study of non-native vegetation in the Stillwater Creek region estimated that eradication of the cane, from just that region, would cost around $350,000.

Given the expense of eradication, it seems Smith is performing magic.

Mary Mitchell, district manager of the Western Shasta Resource Conservation District, helps secure grants for the Weed Management Area. She said volunteers and in-kind donations (totaling $47,641, broken down by hour, cost and agency) are monumental in Smith’s campaign, which brings the total cost of the project to $90,626, still just about a quarter of the estimate.

As an unpaid volunteer, Smith and his teams have, within this budget, eliminated 16 miles of arundo from the Stillwater region, and cleared an additional 134 remote sites since the project began in 2004. Totals in acreage cannot be calculated, as arundo does not grow continuously enough to be counted in acres, Mitchell said.

“Without Randy, arundo would still be a huge problem in the community. He has seen the damage, how it proliferates, and the extreme difficulty in eradicating arundo,” she said, adding that the removal program is a great example of passionate people and agencies tackling a big problem together. “It’s wonderful.”

Of the four methods of removal – compost, mechanical, biological and chemical – only the latter is effective. Smith and his teams use glyphosate – the generic form of Round-Up, which is the most widely-used herbicide to treat arundo.

The team uses vehicles, like the Shasta County Mosquito and Vector Control District‘s “Argo” – an eight-wheeled amphibious vehicle – to spray a diluted glyphosate solution over a large area, yielding a 90-percent kill each time it is used.

A cut-and-paint method is used in more fire-prone areas. The canes are cut and the herbicide is applied individually. This method requires pure glyphosate concentrate, not the diluted solution sprayed over large areas, making the exercise costly and time consuming.

Smith and his teams operate under the supervision of all agencies mentioned, and report directly to the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), which provided Smith the initial training needed to begin eradication efforts. After the DFG turned him loose, Randy took charge, said Kim Niemer, Redding’s director of community services.

“Randy gets a lot of credit. He is mostly self-taught with this stuff. And because he’s very passionate, he’s been able to get a lot done,” Niemer said. “He’s retired and could be traveling the world, but he cares about the area.”

Several years ago, former mayor Ken Murray had called Niemer and Smith into his office to address a problem, Niemer said. As Murray saw it, the streams in the area had become dumping grounds. So in 2006, Smith began a Creek Cleanup Day, which ties into the California Coastal Commission’s statewide Coastal Cleanup Day. With the help of some 500 volunteers, the group works on litter abatement, non-native plant removal, fire danger reduction and trail improvement.

When it comes to arundo, many have taken note of Smith’s success, including Margie Graham, environmental scientist at the California Department of Water Resources.

“His passion for the job and dedication are highly admirable. If there were a Randy at every watershed we’d never have a problem,” Graham said.

John Albright, a biologist at the Shasta County Mosquito and Vector Control District, was involved in the early stages of the project, and has since focused on other projects. But he was recently asked to give a presentation for a continuing education class and his manager suggested doing it on arundo.

“I was going through old pictures, and when I compared them with what the area now looks like, I was really surprised to see how much had really been removed. Streams are returning to their center of course,” he said.

Arundo has been a large focus of Smith et al., but his efforts extend to other non-natives, like Himalayan blackberry, acacia, Spanish broom and ailanthus. Since 2000, Smith said, Redding Rotary has accomplished over $1 million in environmental restoration enhancement and repairs including drain covers, education and other services.

“As you can see,” Smith said, “small investments can yield large dividends.”

Photos by Paul Heath

Joshua Corbelli likes to write stuff on paper, and that makes him a happy little jellybean. Reach him at joshua.corbelli@gmail.com. Or don’t. Your call.