District could fog for mosquitoes again this week

County OKs emergency ‘air strike’

Libby Nance points out where mosquito larvae are prevalent near the Scott Matheson Wetlands Preserve. Photo by Doug McMurdo

The Moab Mosquito Abatement District board announced it will not do any more fogging to eradicate the plague of aggressive nuisance mosquitoes that have descended on Grand County in June and continues to vex residents and tourists alike.

The news only got more uncomfortable from there Monday night during a discussion the district’s board and manager, Libby Nance, engaged in with more than two-dozen mostly angry residents.

The initial reasoning behind the decision was one of inadequate funding. Board Chair Tim Graham said public health concerns prompted the decision, saying if they sprayed for the current nuisance mosquitoes now – they ostensibly don’t carry diseases – then the district would not have money to fog so-called vector mosquitoes, which could arrive later this summer. Vector mosquitoes can carry serious diseases.

But the reasons not to fog were not limited to funding. The presence of West Nile virus was later said to be what triggers the need to fog, for example, leading one to believe more is in play than money.

Unless it’s a public health concern, said Nance, the policy is to not spray. Later, she said if the mosquitoes she traps and tests each week turn up with West Nile or some other disease, than fogging would be comprehensive throughout Grand County.

For clarification and to clear up evident public confusion, perhaps due to the meeting being held at City Hall, the Moab Mosquito Abatement District is not overseen by the Moab City Council. It is a 25-square-mile special district under the umbrella of and funded at least in part by the Grand County Council.

Its budget in fiscal year 2019 is $40,000. Nance is supposed to have three employees. She is down to two, who are responsible for controlling the mosquito population. When fully staffed, two are assigned to the Matheson Wetland Preserve and the third covers the creeks and other areas of Grand County.

It is in the preserve that the mosquito larvae hatch. Larvae can lay dormant for years in the sloughs along the rivers and in the preserve. In high water years, a designation to which 2019 certainly qualifies, the sloughs flood and recede and larvae hatch.

Here are a few highlights from Monday’s sometimes-heated discussion:

Board didn’t accept Nance’s resignation

Nance tendered her resignation Saturday, but the board refused to accept it. Graham said Nance, an entomologist who has been on the job for two and a half years, became “overwhelmed” while out in the field doing work outside the scope of her normal duties due to dismal staffing levels.

“We have full confidence in Libby,” said Graham, who told attendees the incident was “the result of her trying to do all the jobs.” Graham said the district has been short-staffed this season.

He said prior to her tenure, previous manager Bob Phillips was on the job for nearly a quarter century. “Bob understood mosquito history and the history of the equipment,” said Graham.

Aged equipment doomed fogging effort

The decision to fog neighborhoods was made after thousands of mosquitoes were caught in a test trap– rather than the typical hundreds – but opponents of fogging mounted a wild online resistance and Nance decided to limit fogging to the eastern edge of the preserve. That infuriated people on the other side of the mosquito debate who desperately wanted the district to fog much more of the county.

All the angst was for naught as the machine soon broke down. According to Nance, the plan was to test the machine, which was manufactured in the 1970s. The truck on which it is mounted came off the assembly line sometime during the 1980s.

“We’re trying to figure out all these crises at once, said Graham.

Nance falls on sword

“I failed in my job,” said Nance. “This is much bigger than me. I had a feeling this was coming. I thought I was prepared.”

Nance in an early May interview with The Times-Independent shared her alarm over the coming season. She had been monitoring river levels as temperatures warmed up and her employees sprayed hundreds of acres of larvae habitat, but mosquito larvae, as Graham said, can go where people cannot.

As it is, he said mosquito abatement officials walk through 10-feet-high bulrush in water past their knees and get stuck in the mud, all in an effort to spray. By the way, there is a job opening. The pay isn’t bad and you qualify for full benefits if you survive the first eight-month season.

Nance said a key component of her decision not to spray neighborhoods, particularly the Bartlett neighborhood across the street from Moab Regional Hospital, came from MRH. She said the hospital called to say the spray would drift to the hospital and possibly expose patients.

Public commentary

Moab Chamber of Commerce Director Laici Shumway pleaded with the board to spray Swanny Park prior to the July 4 celebration. She noted the Chamber spent thousands of dollars to bring a band to town and that it was the first all-day Independence Day celebration in a number of years.

Nance said if she made an exception for the Chamber, she would have to honor every request for an exception.

Shumway noted she wasn’t aware of any other group that is putting on a public event. However, the July Friday evening concert series begins July 5 at the same venue and continues through July 26.

Merlene Dalton asked why the ball fields and parks couldn’t be sprayed, and that’s when attendees were advised that it is no longer district policy to spray for nuisance mosquitoes. The issue is one of public health, said Nance, and West Nile is her chief concern.

“I’ve lived on my street for 40 years and they used to spray all the time,” said Dalton.

“That was the old days,” Nance responded.

“We ought to go back to the old days then,” murmured someone in the audience.

In response to Dalton, Nance said she sets traps throughout the district and inspects them once a week. She said she pulls out the potentially disease-carrying vector species and crushes them for testing. She tests them in batches of 100, but if even one mosquito tested positive for the disease the fogging policy would be triggered.

While it would have been easier to kill larvae as opposed to mosquitoes on the wing, Nance implied the job was too big for her small office with “600 acres under water and a budget of $40,000.”

Many complaints related to quality-of-life issues, but all of them came from a public that feels like it’s under siege. Two people were especially concerned because they have both contracted West Nile in the past and they shared how they continue to live with the consequences. “My life will probably end early because of this,” said one man.

Others roundly criticized the board and Nance for not being prepared for the onslaught. Still others insisted money be taken from tourism revenue to pay for fogging, but mostly they expressed serious concerns over the decision to not fog.

Not everyone was critical. Concerns over aquatic life and other species that would be killed alongside mosquitoes during a fogging were raised. Some of those species, such as dragonflies, feast on mosquitoes.

Another hatch coming

Nance said the river would peak again Tuesday, July 2 – it did – and it has flooded the sloughs again. “It’s not going away soon,” she said.

Grand County Council Vice Chair and district liaison Terry Morse raised hopes when he said he would ask his peers for financial help, but those hopes were dashed when it became clear any money would be used to mount an aerial assault of larvicide over the sloughs, which would do nothing about the current invasion.

Morse in an impassioned speech said the county council for the past 16 years has “done nothing to operate special service districts because nobody wants to raise taxes.” He said the county has relied on “grants and other goodies,” and those are drying up. He said taxes will have to be raised and it will take courage on everyone’s part for that to happen.