OPINION: Riverkeeper Says Fertilizer Bill is a Step in Right Direction

Cheapeake Bay (Photo courtesy Joe Ports)

By Joe Ports

The chief issue facing the Chesapeake Bay is pollution from nutrientsnitrogen and phosphorus. The bulk of these pollutants do not come out of pipes, but rather come from the land in the form of non-point source pollution, commonly referred to as “runoff.”  The broad scope of this problem also makes it difficult to solve. It is too easy to point the finger at others when dealing with non-point source issues; agriculture interests blame residential areas, developers and home-builders blame agriculture, and so on.  In Anne Arundel County, the latest data suggests that about 1/3 of the total nitrogen pollution and over 40% of the phosphorus pollution is from non-point-source runoff.

Turf grass is now Maryland’s largest “crop.”  Of course, grass is not a cash crop to be grown by farmers, but it does cover more ground in Maryland than any other single crop grown on farms.  Many of us wish to have bright green lawns all year round, and to achieve this tons of fertilizers, whose primary active ingredients are nitrogen and phosphorus, are applied on them every year.

In years past the Maryland legislature has created laws to stop farmers from spreading fertilizers in a harmful way but this is a good way to get the average business and homeowner to also recognize their part to help the Bay.

A new law, known as The Fertilizer Use Act of 2011, has a number of provisions which apply exclusively to turf grass.  This means the bill affects golf courses, commercial property, and private homeowners alike.  The act permits less water-soluble nitrogen to be sold in chemical fertilizers and requires at least 20 percent slow release nitrogen.  The law also bans phosphorus from fertilizers unless it is labeled as intended to establish vegetation, repair turf, or if phosphorus was marked as low in a soil test.

The Fertilizer Use Act also prevents the spreading of fertilizer within 15 feet of a water body, except for when using certain application techniques, thereby making the limit 10 feet.

The bill also prevents so-called “do-it-yourselfers” from spreading fertilizer from November 11th to March 1st, though commercial applicators may apply fertilizer through December 1st.

The time provision of the bill is important because spreading fertilizer in the winter months, when the ground is frozen, means that all fertilizer placed on the turf is simply washed strait into our rivers and Bay.  The times that are allotted for fertilizer application are the best times to apply them anyway, with the fall being the best time.

This bill is similar to a bill passed in 2006 but the main difference is that the 2011 bill establishes fines for those that disobey the law.  Maryland’s new bill also requires professional applicators of fertilizers to receive certification to ensure they apply fertilizers correctly.

So with all these rules you may be wondering what you can do to help improve this law’s effectiveness.  You can start at your home.  Start off by having your soil tested.  You can pick up a soil test kit at Bowen’s Farm Supply in Annapolis, for $16.99. The kit contains 40 tests, and is pretty easy to use.

You could also test your lawn and send your sample to the University of Delaware who will test it for nutrients for the small fee of $8.  (To learn more about this option visit: http://ag.udel.edu/dstp/)  Your soil test may tell you that you don’t even need to fertilize your lawn, so in that case save some money, don’t buy any fertilizer and take a day to relax and enjoy the fine spring we’re sure to have!  If the test comes back as lacking some nutrients then its time to go to the store and pick up some fertilizer.

When selecting a fertilizer only get one with the nutrients you need.  All fertilizers come with 3 numbers printed on them, such as 24-8-4.  These numbers are the percent, by weight, of each nutrient in that bag and always in the order Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium.  Nitrogen is what makes your lawn the dark green that everyone strives for so this is essentially the most important nutrient to a turf farmer.  Now keep in mind that a mature lawn has no use for phosphorus so any that you put on will just be washed straight into the streams and rivers.

Phosphorus is needed for a newly developing lawn so if you have a spot on your lawn that you’re reseeding then you do need phosphorus here, but only apply it to that space to avoid any excess.  Potassium helps your lawn withstand stress, but not much is needed to achieve this hardiness.

Now that you can read the ingredients in the fertilizer, you can select the one that your soil needs as determined by the test.  If you need nitrogen in your lawn, make sure that you get a slow release formula, the law will require 20 percent slow release nitrogen but something like 65 percent is better.

Also, tell the store clerk what your soil test results were and ask for organic options.  Organic fertilizers are better than chemical alternatives because organic not only feeds the plants but also build soil, where chemical only feed plants.  Some examples of organic fertilizers are things like compost and chicken poop (except chicken poop is high in phosphorus, so use sparingly!)

 

Lawn

This new legislation is a valuable step in the right direction for the Bay’s fight against nutrients.  Estimates suggest that the provisions of this bill will reduce the total phosphorus in the Bay by 3 percent, reduce urban phosphorus by 15 percent and achieve 20 percent of the phosphorus reduction goals.

 

It’s too often that businesses and individuals put personal interests above those of the grander cause.  Farmers have been saying for some time now that they have taken enough steps to curb nutrient pollution and want others to take more steps to make reductions.  Hopefully everyone will accept this new bill and take the necessary steps to curb their release of nutrients to the Bay.  The problems facing the Chesapeake is no single group’s fault, so let’s be leaders in the effort to clean it up and inspire others to follow.


Joe Ports is working with the West/Rhode Riverkeeper and the Chesapeake Conservation Corps. He can be reached at joe@westrhoderiverkeeper.org.

 

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