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Limits to Lawn Fetilizers to Protect Chesapeake Bay Passes Maryland House

(Beyond Pesticides, March 30, 2011) The Maryland House of Delegates passed the Fertilizer Use Act of 2011 (HB 573) on March 23 to limit ferilizer use on lawns, while a new report published by Environment Maryland Research and Policy Center finds that turf grass management, not agriculture, is the leading cause of fertilizer-based nitrogen runoff that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. The report recommends an additional 30 percent reduction in nutrient levels in order to achieve a clean, sustainable Bay. The Maryland legislation would set limits on the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in lawn-fertilizers and prohibit the application of lawn fertilizers within 15 feet of a waterway, when the ground is frozen, or between November 15 and March 1. the Maryland Senate version, SB 487, is now under consideration.

Pollution in the Chesapeake Bay – which supports over 3,600 species of plants, fish, and other animals – increases when nutrients wash into its waters from snow and rainfall. And many synthetic lawn fertilizers, including ‘weed and feed’ products, have an excess of two problematic nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous. Maryland requires cities and farms to keep a close eye on nutrient runoff in the Chesapeake Bay, but the report, “Urban Fertilizers and the Chesapeake Bay: An Opportunity for Major Pollution Reduction,” says the state does not pay enough attention to turf grass and its contribution to bay pollution. Grassy turf, not farmland, is the most dominant crop in the bay watershed. There were almost 1.3 million acres of planted turf in Maryland in 2009, compared with 1.5 million acres of all other crops.

The study calls on Maryland to consider following other states, such as New York and New Jersey, which recently banned the use of fertilizers with phosphorous and imposed buffer zones around bodies of water.

“All 17 million of us who live in the watershed need to be part of the restoration effort,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). Not just wastewater facilities, municipalities and farmers, he said, but “homeowners and businesses also need to be part of the solution by reducing the chemicals we put on our lawns and other green spaces.”

The study criticizes Maryland’s regulation of the state’s turf crop as lax. Tracking “fertilizer use on developed land is such a low priority that the state doesn’t keep statistics on it, but Maryland Department of Agriculture records show non-farm-use fertilizers are quickly catching up to farm fertilizer sales,” the report says. As a result of nutrient pollution, more than 80 percent of the bay and its tributaries are either low-oxygen or no oxygen. Furthermore, the bay and its waters are plagued with harmful algae blooms, causing seafood harvests that support commercial fisherman to plummet.

The best estimates suggest that Maryland landowners apply at least 86 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer to state lawns every year. In a watershed in suburban Baltimore, researchers found that 56 percent of nutrients in one stream came from lawn fertilizer. Maryland’s law on fertilizer usage is weak. The state reviews less than 10 percent of fertilizer use reports each year. State reviewers routinely find that roughly one-fourth of the companies fail to take basic steps to minimize fertilizer use, such as testing the soil to find out whether additional fertilizer is needed.

Homeowners can play a critical role in reducing urban fertilizer pollution. The report states reducing urban fertilizer pollution means both limiting the nutrients in the fertilizer itself and ensuring applicators put less fertilizer on the ground, including:
• Ban phosphorus from all fertilizers, organic and synthetic, intended for use on established turf grass.
• Require a science-based upper limit on the amount of nitrogen in all fertilizers intended for use on established lawns, and require that at least a fifth of the nitrogen be “slow release,” which leads to less runoff.
• Provide adequate funding so the state can enforce fertilizer usage by professional applicators as well as fertilizer manufactures and distributors.
• Prohibit application of fertilizer in specific situations that would facilitate runoff.
• Rewrite the existing guidelines that dictate how and when professionals apply fertilizer such that the guidelines are aligned with statewide water quality restoration goals for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Similar reports studying the Bay have also found that nitrogen and phosphorus loads, along with pesticide pollution from farm fields and households contribute to the Chesapeake Bay’s decline. Pesticides pollution may well be linked to declines in frogs across the region and intersex fish seen in the Potomac River. However, not enough attention is being paid to the potential harm being done by pesticides. In a White Paper produced by the Maryland Pesticide Network and the Pesticides and the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Project explains, in a study of Chesapeake waters in 2004, in 100% of water samples taken at sixty different stations spread across five different Bay tributaries detected the herbicide atrazine.

President Obama signed an Executive Order in 2009 stipulating seven reports: reducing pollution and meeting water quality goals, targeting conservation practices, strengthening storm water management at federal facilities, adapting to impacts of a changing climate, conserving landscapes, strengthening science for decision making, and conducting habitat and research activities to improve outcomes for living resources. These reports are to be used to create a strategy defining the actions needed to restore the Chesapeake Bay.

You can play a part in restoring the Bay. Limiting the cosmetic use of chemicals on residential lawns can go a long way for reducing nitrogen runoff to the Chesapeake Bay. Beyond Pesticides has information about the growing movement in the U.S. to eliminate the cosmetic use of chemicals on lawns and landscapes. Please visit Beyond Pesticides’ Lawns and Pesticides Fact Sheets page.

Source: The Washington Post


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