SRQ Ban on Nitrogren-Based Fertilizers

A rainy-season ban of nitrogen-based fertilizers would curtail a major water polluter and spare Hillsborough County millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

And it wouldn’t keep residents from having green lawns.

Hillsborough commissioners, scheduled to discuss the proposal at a Wednesday workshop, should direct the Environmental Protection Commission to develop a summertime ban.

Sarasota County, St. Petersburg and about 20 other Florida governments already have adopted such restrictions. Pinellas gave initial approval to a tough rule last week. State lawmakers last session adopted a measure that requires local governments adjacent to impaired waters to implement, at a minimum, a rule proscribing the use of residential nitrogen fertilizer when heavy rain is forecast.

Hillsborough must comply because parts of Tampa Bay and all the waterways that run into it, including the Hillsborough and Alafia rivers, are listed as impaired, partly because of rainfall washing fertilizers into waterways. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of imposing nitrogen limits for Florida that will require cleanup steps. The state’s modest rule offers mostly good intentions. But a model ordinance developed by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which coordinates restoration work and education programs for the bay, would have teeth.

The agency recommends prohibiting the use of the polluting fertilizers from June 1st to Sept. 30th and to make the restriction enforceable. The suggestion is to forbid the sale of fertilizers during this period. The fertilizer ban would apply only to residential fertilizer use, not to agriculture, nurseries, or golf courses.

Most importantly, the restriction would not prevent homeowners from having green lawns. Alternatives to nitrogen fertilizers are available, such as potash and magnesium. Slow-release nitrogen fertilizers will work for months.

A report by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science warned that such a rule could cause homeowners to over fertilize before and after the ban. Conversely, Sarasota County adopted a summer fertilizer ban in 2007 and has found no evidence of such a reaction.

Nitrogen pollution is a serious matter. Nutrients cloud the water, choke sea grasses and can cause massive fish-killing algae blooms.

Holly Greening, director of the estuary program, estimates that if just 50% of residents complied with a ban, nitrogen pollution would be reduced by about thirty tons a year. Such a reduction would likely save Hillsborough between $1 million and $6 million a year in the storm water treatment costs, because adding cleanup structures such as retention ponds can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 a ton.

Banning summertime sales of the troublesome fertilizers would be effective and simple to enforce, but some commissioners are reluctant to be that stringent. Sarasota County’s summertime ban does not include retail stores, appears to work. Whatever course commissioners choose, they should focus on public education. No one suggests fertilizer patrols.

Most people will respect the ordinance and do the right thing; however, there will be some that will ignore the regulation.

Commissioners needn’t worry about the grass being greener elsewhere. They should be concerned about making our waters cleaner.