Photograph by Tony Medina
IT'S A BLAST: Yes, inventor Cameron Colson is happy to see you, but that's actually a new organic method of plant control.
Squirt Gun Solution
Getting pesticides out of the county's plant-control arsenal can be a thorny business. One South Bay inventor says he has the answer.
By Vrinda Normand
JUST BE careful not to chop off your toes," Cameron Colson tells me as I get ready to let loose a stream of high-pressure water that shoots over 10,000 pounds per square inch. I adjust my white-knuckle grip, bend my knees, and brace myself to unleash the "garden hose on steroids" as far away from my feet as possible.
The water jets out with a slight jolt and penetrates the soil a few feet in front of me. Luckily, my toes stay in tact. The powerful stream cleanly churns the dirt without making mud and disintegrates tiny bits of grass left over from Colson's previous experiments. Since his quaint Saratoga front yard is completely bald, there aren't any nasty weeds to practice on. But it's easy to see how his device could be the newest eco-friendly innovation in the county's plant control arsenal.
Colson's patented "Hydro Mechanical Obliteration" (HMO) machine can obliterate unwanted plant matter within seconds and rototill the soil at the same time. Concentrating the high-power water stream at the right angle can even blast away roots. Woody stems, weeds tucked in hard-to-reach corners, pesky grasses sprouting from pavement cracks, vines growing on walls—none stand a chance with this ultimate water gun.
The South Bay inventor has been wowing environmentally conscious people with HMO over the past two years. A video clip of a recent demonstration for the Oakland fire department shows onlookers dropping their jaws and "oooohing" in amazement as Colson slashes through a 4-foot-tall invader called Pampas Grass. In two minutes, he turns the plant's long, tough stems and feathery blooms into brown mush.
"This machine is effective on anything," Colson tells me. "Imagine no more noisy weedblowers. No more weed whips. No more chemicals."
In fact, he thinks all Santa Clara County maintenance workers should be using HMO to safely tame acres of local parkland and urban landscapes.
But although Colson's clever device can cut through anything green, he can't seem to penetrate the county administration—not even the officials in charge of finding new, organic ways to manage pests.
In 2002, the county Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance mandating a reduction in the use of pesticide chemicals and hired scientist Naresh Duggal to oversee the new Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM). Duggal's job is to work with leaders in all county departments as they make the green transition.
In the past five years, Duggal has helped the county reduce the use of some pesticides by 50 percent to 100 percent, getting rid of the most dangerous chemicals. He has also increased awareness about various IPM strategies and is developing new ways to tackle old problems.
"We now use pesticides only as a last resort," says county executive Pete Kutras.
Colson, however, accuses the county of being stubbornly outdated in its methods. In 2005, he conducted a few demonstrations that "amazed" county parks manager Craig Crawford. "I didn't think high pressure water could do what it did," he says, adding that the device was especially good at getting weeds along the fence line where other mechanical devices couldn't reach.
Soon after, Duggal reported to the Board of Supervisors that Colson's HMO "appears ideal for certain segments of ... vegetation management" but noted that it needed more study, from the cost analysis to potential environmental impacts.
What stopped them from going further? According to Duggal, Colson failed to show up at an important trial near the Uvas Valley in 2005, disappointing a crew of suited officials and road closure escorts. Colson counters that he canceled the trial ahead of time because of problems with a man who was falsely posing as his business partner.
Whatever the reasons, the incident left a bad impression and Colson's recent efforts to work with the county again have only reached dead-ends.
"At this particular time we do not see an immediate need for Cameron's device," Duggal says.
Hydro Mechanical Obliteration is just a fancy name for the same high-pressure washers that are traditionally used to clean the sides of buildings. Colson polished redwood decks with them before he accidentally discovered their potential for landscaping in 2003.
He says he was was cleaning up the back yard with his then 11-year-old son one afternoon and saw the boy spraying the dirt with a small, off-the-shelf pressure washer.
"I was like 'Oh my gosh!" Colson exclaims, his thin, wiry frame alert with excitement as he remembers the day. He grabbed the machine from his son and started slicing through the ivy growing on his fence. Then he went straight to his patent attorney.
The idea was a natural progression from Colson's creative dabblings in storm drain protection. He used to clean gas stations with the high-pressure washers before his operation got shut down by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Apparently, the water he used was collecting petroleum chemicals, flowing into storm drains and threatening water quality in local streams. "I'm a reasonable person," Colson says. "I completely understood the connection."
So with his new ecological awareness, he invented a machine that plugs up storm drains, sucks up used water and hoses it into a plastic tank to recycle. For now, though, the contraption sits in his back yard, waiting in the shadows of his latest pet project.
The self-professed "intuitive engineer" has been inventing "stuff" since he was a kid, even though he was never formally educated in science. Colson's practical experience as an auto machinist, gardner, electrician, and high-pressure washer operator all contributed to his most recent innovative breakthrough.
Colson's HMO equipment and application technique has been modified over the past four years to get the best results for weed control. He says the pressurizer that runs from his pickup truck bed is more powerful than the kind you can rent at Home Depot. Plus, he's narrowed down the best spray nozzles to minimize splatter.
The HMO device uses three gallons of water per minute, less than a shower head, and can be fed with recycled water. Colson also says he can easily modify the generator to run on biodiesel fuel. Best of all, it can tackle any type of foliage without pre-applying herbicides to dry it out.
"The problem is the god-awful chemicals that are being dumped on lawns, parks, and around buildings when they're totally unnecessary," Colson says. "The fact is, there is a better way to do it that's sustainable."
Colson had the chance to prove his HMO with a handful of private and public clients, including Caltrans and the National Park Service. Bob Melendez, district landscape specialist with Caltrans, hired him to tackle tough weed problems in pavement cracks along a highway median strip in Mendocino County.
"It worked quite well," Melendez says. Although the method is comparatively slow when operated one machine at a time, he says "it's well worth it because it's safe" and plans to hire Colson again.
Santa Clara County Parks director Lisa Killough seemed far more skeptical about HMO. She called it a "temporary fix" that may even make weed problems worse by disturbing seed beds in the soil. However, she couldn't say whether or not Colson's demonstration at local parks exacerbated weed growth.
The truth is, there is no magic bullet—every known organic weed control method has drawbacks:
— Rubberized mulch: IPM head Duggal is currently experimenting with this technique that prevents weeds from growing back, but it certainly isn't going to obliterate a monster plant like pampas grass.
— Solarization: This suffocates weeds with a layer of plastic under the sun, but according to Crawford, application on five acres required a "god-awful" amount of plastic for the local landfill and defeated the purpose of sustainability.
— Controlled burns and cow grazing: These are two methods that are being used to squelch yellow stark thistle in Grant Park but obviously wouldn't be the best choice for weeding near roads or cities.
"Yes, we need more help," Killough admits about the county's weed control program, "That's just the nature of the beast." Crawford also says that he's "absolutely" open to trying new methods.
So why should one professional glitch stop Santa Clara County from revolutionizing its IPM efforts with Colson's help?
After all, the best way to fight pests organically is to have a "full toolbox", says San Jose State University professor Rachel O'Malley. "You need a range of options to use the right thing for each problem," she says. "If [HMO] is another tool, then I think it's great."
Send a letter to the editor about this story.