San Mateo County pest inspection programs could face cuts

San Mateo County’s efforts to prevent the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the gypsy moth and other harmful pests from damaging a $150 million agricultural industry may take a hit if proposed state budget cuts go through, officials said.

The behind-the-scenes battle to keep invasive pests out is being waged by 21 inspectors with the county’s pest exclusion program, which stations inspectors at San Francisco International Airport and other local shipping facilities such as FedEx in South San Francisco.

Inspectors check domestic packages with plants that come into the county, looking for evidence of pests that could ravage the county’s farms from places such as Florida or Hawaii. They checked more than 29,000 shipments during the 2009-10 fiscal year alone, and intercepted 135 harmful pests.

“The idea is to protect your agriculture, to ensure you continue to have an industry,” Agricultural Commissioner Fred Crowder said.

But Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed cutting $47 million from the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s $127 million budget for general-fund programs, putting the inspection program at risk, department spokesman Steve Lyle said.

Local officials were told that the statewide cut to pest exclusion programs would be between $250,000 and $1 million, Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Ronald Pummer said.

The county’s high-risk pest exclusion program has a budget of $606,000 per year. Pummer said it should be clearer in a week or two how the county’s inspection programs might be impacted.

“Most likely we’d be able to shift staff around to other programs, we’re hoping,” he said. “Until we really know the numbers, we really can’t say. It definitely is an issue.”

Though a cut to pest exclusion programs might not be as noticeable as other state budget impacts like cuts to local schools, Crowder said, the program is the county’s “first line of defense” against invasive bugs that could affect residents’ quality of life.

“It’s something I think we tend to take for granted, that we have relatively few pests,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about fire ants in our backyard or Mediterranean fruit flies in our plums or peaches or citrus. … It’s these kinds of programs that allow us to do that.”

County officials said they’ve been largely successful in keeping out pests that could pose a serious threat to the county’s roughly $150 million agriculture industry.

The Japanese beetle, for example, is “high on our radar,” Crowder said. It feeds on foliage in eastern states and could be especially destructive to the county’s floral industry, which makes up more than 80 percent of the county’s crop value.

Officials are also keeping a close watch on the glassy-winged sharpshooter, found in Southern California, which could spread disease to the county’s 135 acres of wine grapes.

Pummer’s biggest fear is the Mediterranean fruit fly, which he said could “ruin not only agriculture but homeowners’ fruits and vegetables in their gardens. That probably is the nightmare.”

An infestation of one of those serious pests could force the county to consider costly measures to eradicate it, including pesticide spraying, Crowder said.

“By the time it gets to the point where you’re looking at an eradication project — you don’t want to get to that point,” Crowder said. “That is the last resource we’re going to employ.”

Sterilization program may be shut down before liftoff

Federal cuts could also squash funding for new technology aimed at eradicating the light brown apple moth, an established pest in San Mateo County that officials say hasn’t yet been responsible for major crop damage.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is preparing to start a pilot program in which sterile light brown apple moths would be released over 14 square miles in San Diego and Long Beach.

Crowder said he was optimistic that the sterile moth technology, if successful, might eventually be a way to eradicate the light brown apple moth on the Peninsula. But it is unclear whether Congress will continue to fund the sterile moth program, USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins said.

“I think everything is on the table with the federal government at this point,” Hawkins said.

Efforts to control the light brown apple moth through spraying in other counties have prompted a series of lawsuits in recent years from activists concerned about health and environmental effects.

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