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September 14, 2004 > The Mosquito Menace

The Mosquito Menace

Written with assistance of John Rusmisel

Spanish explorers were so harassed by the local mosquitoes that some of them recorded their observations in diaries.

E. L. Beard was one of the first American pioneers to tackle the mosquito problem. He purchased 8,000 acres of marshland between Alviso and Alvarado. Dikes and drainage ditches were built; the land was then sold for a proposed farming venture, but the mosquito menace persisted.

A reporter wrote in July 1880 that "the gnats have given way to their wicked cousins the mosquitoes." People asked, "Did you ever see them so thick? Yet Centerville is a paradise compared to the low places where water abounds."

In 1897 a British bacteriologist, Dr. Ronald Ross, working in India, discovered that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes. He received the 1902 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work on malaria. The U.S. Army Sanitary Department was formed two years later to aggressively manage sanitation and mosquito control during the 1904 - 1914 construction of the Panama Canal. The opening of the canal was celebrated with the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in February 1915, complete with exhibits on mosquito eradication methods.

The Niles Women's Club appointed a committee in 1915 to eradicate "evil flies and mosquitoes." It was known that 112 Californians had died of malaria in 1909 from the mosquito-borne disease. The State of California adopted the Mosquito Abatement District Act in 1915 that authorized the formation of mosquito control districts, but the Alameda County District was not organized until March 1930.

The Board of Supervisors appointed Trustees for the new district, approved a small budget and provided a loan until taxes could be collected in December, 1931. Roland Bendel was appointed inspector and A.H. Miles, foreman. The bay shore marshes were mapped and the first ditching begun near San Leandro.

Much of the first year's budget was earmarked for contracts to drain the marshes between Hayward and Alvarado, around San Leandro and near Newark. The depression drastically reduced the budget and much of the work had to be curtailed for several years. The district worked with the federal government in relief projects that provided employment until the need became less acute.

Since the salt-marsh mosquito presented the worst problem, efforts were first concentrated on draining and treating marshes. It was reported in 1931 that 100 gallons of oil per day were being used to oil roadside ditches and sloughs. These efforts were so successful that citizens began to complain about fresh water mosquitoes around their homes and demand relief. The problem of a few million fresh-water mosquitoes had been dwarfed by the billions of salt-marsh mosquitoes. Recognition of this problem expanded the work and required more workers. The district was divided into areas and a divisional building was erected at Decoto.

The district launched a program to educate the public to reduce unnecessary breeding places around homes, farms and industrial plants. The education program included house-to-house inspections and supplying mosquito fish for fish ponds and planting in freshwater areas. The Niles Chamber of Commerce, Washington Township Fairs and other gatherings were used for education. A demonstration of the practicality of oiling by airplane was staged near Newark in 1932.

The District struggled with personnel and material shortages, transportation difficulties and needs of military forces during the war years of 1941-1945. They provided assistance and advice to nearby military bases and were even involved in testing DDT, the "secret" new insecticide developed during the war. It was field tested and used widely in 1946-1947 and for several years after that. It was banned for use in 1972. During the war years, people stored water in barrels for fire protection and created more mosquito breeding places.

At the end of the war, there was a great work backlog; the purchase of war surplus equipment allowed the District to mechanize more. A Quonset-type building for a shop was installed at the Decoto Depot where a mechanic could repair and maintain equipment.

The Postwar recovery was followed by "An Era of Regulation" when the District faced increasing regulation of all efforts. The 1970's brought the EPA and OSHA and a plethora of regulatory laws. It was estimated that there were 29 separate agencies regulating District activities at one time.

Mosquito infestations have varied in intensity over the years. A reporter noted in 1932 that "For the first time in years, residents of Washington Township are experiencing freedom from the annoyances of mosquitoes during the summer nights as a result of the effective work done by the Abatement District." Roland Bendel predicted that 1937 would be a tough year, and he was right. It rained for two weeks in March, flooding the marshes and creating "a bad year." Southern Alameda County was invaded in 1949 by "the largest flight of mosquitoes in 15 years" and again in 1971. Ten times the normal number of mosquitoes was reported in April and May of 1982.

Passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 destroyed the state budget and forced the District to lay off employees. Alameda County voters passed Measure K in 1982, restoring the local budget.

Recent news flashes have emphasized the dangers posed by diseases such as the West Niles Virus. The primary forces that protect us from the hordes of mosquitoes are the abatement programs. We are grateful to all those who strive to provide this protection.

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