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Florida may go green through fertilizer limits

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published March 29, 2007


Lush green lawns, verdant golf courses and tropical gardens long have been a part of the rich Florida landscape.

But that beauty has come with a price.

For years, state officials have blamed overfertilized lawns for many of Florida's water pollution woes.

With every rainfall, they said, excess nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers would wash downstream, spurring harmful algae blooms, fish kills and deadzones in lakes and rivers.

This spring, Florida is poised to become the first state in the nation to restrict the content of fertilizer for lawns, farms, golf courses and landscaping, according to industry officials.

State officials have proposed a rule that would limit fertilizer sold in Florida to formulas classified as no- or low-phosphate - all in an effort to quell the state's biggest water pollution problem.

They didn't intend to become national leaders on the fertilizer issue, state officials said, but industry representatives suggested creating a uniform policy to avoid counties and cities imposing their own rules.

Now, though, the industry isn't keen on the result.

"There's no justification for reformulating this product," said James Skillen of the fertilizer trade group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment.

Industry officials question whether the rule would even lessen Florida's water pollution.

"We're battling the myths of the impact that fertilizer has," said Mary Hartney, president of the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association. "There's a misperception that overuse is occurring, and we have the data and can prove that there's no overuse."

The state and opponents don't agree on the effect on suburban lawns. "Homeowners won't see a difference with how green their lawns are," predicted Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.

"They'll notice eventually a degradation of their lawn," Hartney said.

And they don't agree on whether the new rules will stem the rising tide of polluted waters. "Almost no phosphorus will be getting into our urban waterways," Wehle said.

"I think it will be difficult to measure" any change, Hartney said.

Laurie Trenholm, a University of Florida associate professor of environmental horticulture who has studied urban turfgrass, said the new rules are "not going to be detrimental to lawns."

But golf courses and athletic fields that see a lot of wear may have some trouble, she said. If that happens, the rule allows application of larger amounts of fertilizer.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson announced the proposed new rule in January. The department already has had two public workshops. The last one is scheduled for today in the small Central Florida town of Citra.

Unless there are substantial objections submitted there, the new rule will likely take effect in late May or early June. However, there will be a yearlong grace period for stores to sell out of the current stock of fertilizer in Florida and usher in the new formula.

Some consumers appear eager for the switch. Christopher D'Elia, an environmental science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said he recently canceled his "ChemLawn" service with TruGreen because he feared his Old Northeast lawn was polluting nearby Tampa Bay.

"If we want to protect our water, we need to protect our resources," D'Elia said.

Craig Hyde, a St. Petersburg landscaper, said he treats both his own and his customers' lawns with an organic fertilizer that uses 2 percent phosphorus and is environmentally safe. He said the fertilizer keeps lawns lush and green, but he added that more chemicals are required to curb insect infestations.

"Do I want my yard to look like that" asked Hyde, pointing toward the patchwork of weeds and sand across the street from his Old Northeast home. "No."

Restricting fertilizer use came up two years ago when state officials were trying to come up with a rescue plan for Lake Okeechobee, one of the most polluted waterways in Florida.

One idea batted around was to limit fertilizer use on lawns and farms around the lake, Wehle said.

If the state were able to cut back on the source of pollution, she said, "then we don't have to spend all these public tax dollars cleaning it up later."

Meanwhile local governments around the state already were considering or taking action on fertilizer limits. Martin and Sarasota counties have talked about clamping down. Crystal River has limited sales to only slow-release fertilizer formulas.

Last year the village of Wellington banned all but 2 percent phosphorus fertilizer, and this month Sanibel followed suit. It also is restricting homeowners to six applications of fertilizer a year. Violators could be charged with a misdemeanor, with the maximum punishment a fine of $500 and 60 days in jail.

Fertilizer industry executives didn't like the fact that they had no input on most of the local rules under discussion, and they worried about trying to comply with widely differing regulations across Florida.

So when state officials contacted them about establishing new fertilizer rules around Lake Okeechobee, industry representatives proposed the state set a single state standard, Wehle said.

That made sense to state officials.

"One of the things we're trying to prevent is a patchwork of local ordinances that would be almost impossible to enforce," said Richard Budell, director of water resources protection for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

That made industry officials unhappy. "The proposed rule as written is problematic," Hartney said. "It puts a disproportionate share of the burden on the industry. We certainly don't think we're the whole problem."

She said the industry prefers more of an emphasis on educating the consumers rather than regulating the fertilizer formula.

Florida isn't the only state concerned about phosphate. Starting in 2005, Minnesota outlawed the use of fertilizers containing phosphorus on lawns unless certain conditions were met.

But Florida officials hope other states will follow suit and be even more aggressive in restricting fertilizer use, Wehle said.

"If we can do it," she said, "then everybody can do it."

Times staff writers Casey Cora and Elena Lesley and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Q&A

Fertilizer changes

What's being proposed?

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services wants to limit the sale of fertilizer products statewide to only those with low or no phosphorus.

Why?

State officials blame excessive farm and suburban fertilizer use for causing Florida's most serious water pollution problem: nutrients that fuel harmful algae blooms, causing fish kills as well as swimmers' rashes and respiratory problems.

Will I notice any difference in my lawn?

State officials say no, but fertilizer industry officials - who oppose the change - are not so confident.

When will the change take effect?

This spring, although stores would have until next year to sell all the fertilizer now on their shelves.

How do I know if the fertilizer I am using has low or no phosphate?

Fertilizer bags have three numbers giving the proportion of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the mix. The middle one should be 0 or less than 2 or 3.

If you go

Workshop in Citra

The last public workshop on the proposed new rule for fertilizer is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. today at the Plant Science Research and Education Unit, 2556 W Highway 318, Citra. For information contact Dale Dubberly, bureau chief of compliance monitoring, Division of Agricultural Environmental Services at (850) 488-8731. To read the full proposal, click on: http://www.flaes.org/pdf/Revision5E-1%2000313107_1.pdf