Workers and farming families in the Green Valley in Yakima County are trying to start a mosquito-control service area or join an existing district. They say the bugs are biting into worker safety, the bottom line and human health.
SUNNYSIDE — Rene Rodriguez squints and grimaces as he peers through a mosquito mask to spot apples for thinning.
The green mesh that covers his face makes it hard to see, so he peels it up for a peek, only to drop it again before the pests attack.
“There’s swarms of them,” said the 34-year-old orchard worker. “You can’t even breathe because they go in your mouth.”
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The workers and farming families of the Green Valley, wedged between the Yakima River and the south slope of Snipes Mountain near Sunnyside, lie outside any mosquito-control service areas. They are trying to change that, either by annexing into a neighboring area or starting their own.
And they aren’t just worried about their comfort at a backyard barbecue. Worker safety, the bottom line and human health are at stake, they say.
Many mosquitoes carry the West Nile virus, the cause of a disease that can be fatal to birds and horses and, in rare cases, people. In 2009, Yakima and Benton counties had at least 30 confirmed human cases, including a 71-year-old Sunnyside woman who died after contracting the virus, though it was not clear where she contracted it.
But residents said convincing outsiders the problem is severe has been difficult because there’s a tendency for people not to take it seriously.
“When you say the mosquitoes are bad, people don’t really believe you,” said Devon Newhouse of Irving Newhouse and Sons farm on the south side of Snipes Mountain. He and his wife, Halley, collect the mosquito carcasses from their zapper by the bagful, filling a quart-sized plastic bag in a day or two.
Newhouse, 24, who is the son of state Agriculture Director Dan Newhouse, grows cherries, apples and hops on land near a slow, curvy section of the Yakima River characterized by oxbows and backwaters that provide habitat for fish, birds and — mosquitoes.
The pests have been getting worse each year, residents say, and farmers say it’s starting to hamper operations. A neighboring farm owner spends $100 per day on repellent, while employees use up to a can each on themselves. Crew members struggle to see while they climb 12-foot ladders. Sheep bang their heads against barns, and horses roll in the mud to escape the torment.
Merritt Mitchell-Wajeeh owns an organic farm that she opens for tours and other public events on South Emerald Road, but she sometimes has to cancel on bad mosquito weekends.
“It’s just swarms,” she said. “It’s not just the evenings.”
Green Valley residents, like large chunks of the Lower Valley, are not part of a mosquito-control district, which means there’s no coordinated action to keep the population in check. The city of Granger, however, already fogs for adult mosquitoes.
Though this year is not particularly bad for mosquitoes throughout the valley, it’s possible that this section is worsening every year, said Stephen Ingalls, manager of the Yakima County Mosquito Control District.
Mosquito districts are areas in which residents approve a special property tax to pay for employees, equipment and chemicals to regulate mosquito larvae and adults. Districts use a variety of means, but they generally apply bacteria to standing water to kill larvae or hormone disrupters to stunt growth. For adults, they spray synthetic pyrethrins from pickups at night.
Districts have an easier time obtaining federally mandated permits from the state Department of Ecology than do individuals.
The Yakima County district covers only the Upper Valley from Selah to Union Gap. The Benton County district extends as far west as Midvale Road south of Sunnyside, just four miles east of Newhouse’s property.
Newhouse and some neighbors are proposing to organize property owners in a 4-mile-wide stretch from Midvale Road on the east to the city limits of Granger on the west into a mosquito-control district — either their own or by annexing into one.
To form their own district, the residents would need to submit a petition with signatures to Yakima County commissioners, who would then place a measure on the ballot.
To annex, they would follow largely the same process but ask voters in the affected area to approve joining an existing district.
Annexation has precedent. The Yakima County portion of that district near Grandview and Mabton was annexed into the Benton County mosquito-control district in 1992.
Yakima County Commissioner Rand Elliott, who visited the Newhouse farm a couple of weeks ago on an unrelated matter, admitted the mosquitoes are bad.
“There were just clouds of them,” he said.
He suggests the residents pursue annexation and sent an email to the Benton County district supporting it. Ingalls, manager of the Yakima County district, favored the residents forming a new district, then contracting with a neighboring district to operate in the area.
Either way, it wouldn’t help them this year. Supporters are shooting for the November ballot.
Back at the Newhouse farm, under the irrigated, shady canopy of apple trees, mosquitoes formed clouds around any area of unprotected skin. Each one of the workers donned head nets as they moved through the trees like a team of brides in camouflage.
And that was on a relatively mild day — sunny and dry with a breeze.
“This is nothing,” said Doroteo Alvarez, a supervisor who has worked for Newhouse farms for about 25 years. They’ll only get worse once the weather gets hotter, he said.
Alvarez estimates battling mosquitoes slows down his workers by 20 percent.
In a matter of weeks, 60 to 70 seasonal pickers will comb the cherry orchards. Many grandparents and children will come along to help.
“You fight them all day,” Alvarez said. “They don’t even let you work.”