AP NEWS

That perennial problem — weeds — blooms anew

May 16, 2019

Santa Fe can’t handle weeds.

In medians. In parks. In private yards. In front of businesses. Instead of a city that looks as though we residents are proud of our natural beauty, we look like a place where anything goes. And grows.

Weeds are everywhere right now, and the blessings of a wet winter and a rainy spring have caused them to go wild. All this, in a year when the City of Santa Fe started earlier than usual in preparing for weeds — both in hiring workers and dealing with median care early.

All of that was done in hopes that the city could — for once — get ahead of weeds. Obviously, that has not happened. More snow and rain during the spring has caused the water-starved plants to thrive. Getting the weeds under control is going to be complicated, and with summer tourist season just up ahead, needs to happen quickly.

To be fair, Santa Fe is hampered in its weed-whacking because of — the correct — decision to forego chemical herbicides as a way to wipe out weeds. That means the work in eliminating unslightly growth has to be done by hand. It is laborious, with workers responsible not just for visible medians and parks but for miles of trails and public spaces — think of the unsightly landscaping at the downtown Santa Fe library, for example. As a city, we don’t keep up and we never, ever get ahead.

John Muñoz, new director of Parks and Recreation, has a job cut out for him. He went before a rightly skeptical City Council last week to discuss the plan for dealing with weeds. Now he has to deliver.

Part of the problem, as with so much at the city, is that work in the past was not always done efficiently. For example, in the parks department, employees to clean up weeds were hired in the spring, after the problem plants had seeded. They could not get ahead of the work. The city did not use enough private contractors, either, something that needs to change now that all-out war on weeds must be declared. Evidently, a temporary agency will supply extra workers as needed.

Crews started in February treating the soil of the medians, picking up debris and otherwise preparing for spring — in past years, that work had started mid-year. Already, that’s an improvement. The city maintains 114.8 miles of medians, some 380. That’s a lot of ground; as Muñoz pointed out in an email, that takes us to the first gas station before Socorro. Add to that 77 parks, 100-plus miles of trails, support for 400-plus events, 21 fields and homeless encampments and the scope of the problem becomes apparent.

But change is coming. For the first time in years, city officials also are examining Adopt-A-Median partners. While such stalwarts as McCumber Fine Gardens and Scott’s Irrigation and Landscaping have created beautiful medians around the downtown area, other areas remain overgrown and unkempt. The sponsors should be embarrassed and folks at the Adopt-A-Median program should have stepped in long before now.

Sticker weeds and rocks are not what we want to see less than a block from the Roundhouse; and that’s just one example of a median that has been adopted, only to look abandoned. Part of the plan to spiff up medians is a simple assessment of the Adopt-A-Median program, examining contracts and removing people who are no longer active. This is overdue.

But, as Muñoz pointed out in the presentation, the Adopt-A-Median is but one part of the solution. The city has two challenges — one is maintenance of medians as they are and the second is going back to the design stage so that medians going forward are easier to keep up. There are natural solutions to discourage weed growth and to make ongoing maintenance easier. That’s a long-term fix, and for now, the focus will have to be on taking on the overgrowth that is all over the city. (That includes private homeowners, too, as well as both county and state governments. Landscaping at state buildings, in particular, can be overrun, especially along sidewalks where foxtail grass is widespread. These noxious weeds need to be attacked first.)

What makes us hopeful that Santa Fe can reduce our weed explosion is this — the city admits there is a problem. Not just City Councilors or citizens pointing out the mess, but the people charged with fixing it. As we have said in the past, weeds are not the number one issue for any city. But the inability to handle a seasonal issue — every year, there will be weeds — is a sign that a city cannot plan or put systems in place to deal with predictable patterns. That has been true not just of maintaining public spaces, but of so much in city government. Managing weeds will be proof that the city is changing.

The challenge for Mayor Alan Webber and the city team now is to prove the skeptics wrong. We can show the world a Santa Fe that is clean, well-kept and laden with spots of beauty amid asphalt. The plan is in place. Action, please.