Pesticide use in California rose by 21 million pounds last year, an upsurge attributed in part to weather conditions and expanded agricultural plantings across the state.
In a preliminary analysis released Thursday, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation reported a 14% jump in chemical usage last year, totaling 172 million pounds in 2002 compared with 151 million pounds the previous year.
All but two of California's top 10 pesticide-using counties reported increases, ranging from a 3.9-million-pound spike in Fresno County to a 52,000-pound bump in Ventura County.
The rise followed three years of decreased usage statewide.
State officials said they weren't surprised -- or worried -- by the numbers.
"We don't look at any single year as a make-or-break situation," said pesticide department spokesman Glenn Brank. "We are in this for the long haul."
Brank said pesticide usage in 2001 reached a record low, and that last year's total was still lower than every other year in the past decade. The amount of pesticide used in 2002 was nearly 21 million pounds lower than in 1992, and was lower than the 1998 figure by more than 40 million pounds.
Brank said increases could be attributed to a growing reliance in California agriculture on less toxic pesticide remedies, noting that use of more environmentally friendly materials often requires heavier and more frequent applications.
Anti-pesticide advocates expressed concern about the rising tide of pesticide use, fearing that it could run counter to efforts to reduce or eliminate farm chemicals that have proven the most dangerous.
"Any time we see an increase, that is a concern," said Bill Walker, California director of the Sacramento-based nonprofit Environmental Working Group. "Obviously, we'd like to see things going in the opposite direction."
The state analysis recorded pesticide use in a variety of industries, including landscaping and structural pest control.
California's $30-billion-a-year agricultural industry accounted for most of the reported pesticide use and had the largest increase of any industry in the state.
The state's growers applied 156.5 million pounds of chemicals last year, up 19 million pounds from the previous year.
As in the past, growers in the food-rich Central Valley were responsible for the greatest pesticide use.
Ventura County was the biggest user in Southern California, applying almost 6.5 million pounds last year. Of the state's 58 counties, Ventura ranked as the eighth-biggest pesticide user, up a spot from 2001.
The state's 2002 usage report was released a day after environmental watchdogs unveiled a new report calling for a drastic reduction in pesticide use in Ventura County agriculture.
The report, issued by the Ventura County-based Wishtoyo Foundation, concluded that regulators have not done enough to shield schools and homes from pesticide exposure, prevent agricultural chemicals from seeping into waterways or eliminate pesticides proven to be the most dangerous.
The report's findings were presented Wednesday by community leaders and environmental activists, including prominent conservationists Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Terry Tamminen.
Both men have been among those helping to shape environmental policy for Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tamminen was officially named Wednesday as Schwarzenegger's secretary of environmental protection.
Tamminen pledged Wednesday to take a hard look at concerns raised in the Wishtoyo report and promised to work with the environmental and agricultural communities to address pesticide issues.
"It is very important that we maintain our agricultural way of life," he said. "I look forward to working with the agricultural community to overcome these problems. But we don't overcome them by overlooking them."
To that end, labor, health and environmental groups gathered on the steps of Ventura City Hall on Thursday morning to call attention to proposed regulations governing use of the controversial soil fumigant methyl bromide.
The chemical, long targeted for elimination because it is highly toxic and depletes the Earth's ozone layer, is being phased out and is set to be banned outright by 2005. Because the chemical is particularly effective for strawberries, Ventura County is among the state's top users.
Officials with the Department of Pesticide Regulation said the proposed rules were aimed at enhancing protection for workers and others who face potential exposure.
Those gathered at City Hall said the new regulations were inadequate to protect farm workers and others who live near fields where the fumigant is applied.
"They are actually a step in the wrong direction," said Santos Gomez, directing attorney for the Oxnard office of California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides free legal help to the poor. "To ignore the needs of farm workers, who work closest to application sites, is a glaring oversight."
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Ranking of pesticide users
Numbers in millions of pounds
*--* County 2001 2002 1. Fresno 24.7 28.7
2. Kern 14.5* 22.1
3. Tulare 12.8 12.7
4. San Joaquin 7.5 9.5
5. Madera 7.7 9.2
6. Monterey 7.9 8.5
7. Merced 6.5 7.0
8. Ventura 6.43 6.48
9. Imperial 7.1 6.3
10. Kings 5.0 5.7
13. Los Angeles 3.52 3.58
15. Riverside 3.39 3.35
16. Santa Barbara 3.32 3.34
22. San Diego 1.8 2.0
24. Orange 1.5 1.7
36. San Bernardino 0.471 0.472
* Not all of Kern County's data were available in 2001
Source: California Department of Pesticide Regulation
Los Angeles Times