New Fertilizer Restrictions to Result in Healthier Waters

Backyard environmentalism is taking on a whole new meaning as governments look at limits on the type, amount and timing of residential fertilizer use.

A Sarasota County ordinance, passed in August by a unanimous vote of the county commission, is the state’s strongest, limiting the use of fertilizer on turf and landscape plants from June through September, mandating the maximum amount of nitrogen and phosphate applied annually and creating year-round fertilizer-free zones within 10 feet of any body of water.

“Most people want to do the right thing,” said Jack Merriam, Sarasota County’s environmental manager for integrated water resources. “We don’t expect the police to enforce the rules, it’s more important that we convince residents that it’s the necessary and desirable thing to do.”

A new statewide regulation limits the proportions of nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers labeled for use on turf. The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which regulates labeling on fertilizer products, expects a 25% reduction in nitrogen and a 15% reduction in phosphate with the new label. It also requires that the maximum coverage area be prominently displayed on the bag, hopefully making it easier for consumers to purchase appropriate amounts of fertilizer.

The new rules are particularly critical because non-farm use of fertilizer skyrocketed in urbanized counties from 2003 to 2006. The use of fertilizer (excluding farms) in the Tampa Bay watershed nearly doubled, from about 29,906 tons in 2003 to 46,957 in 2006.  

The fertilizer regulations were enacted as stormwater from residential neighborhoods creates ever-increasing impacts on Florida’s water, from rivers and lakes to bays and aquifers. While necessary in small amounts, excess fertilizer fuels the growth of algae. High levels of algae block sunlight, stunting the growth of seagrasses and depleting oxygen fish and other species need to survive.

Excess nutrients, from fertilizers, industrial facilities, wastewater treatment plants and air pollution, have become the single-most damaging contaminant in most waters across the country, including Tampa Bay and surrounding lakes and rivers. Some scientists also believe that high levels of nutrients stimulate the growth of red tide which can kill fish, dolphin and manatees, turtles and sea birds.

The new rules are particularly critical because non-farm use of fertilizer skyrocketed in urbanized counties from 2003 to 2006. The use of fertilizer (excluding farms) in the Tampa Bay watershed nearly doubled, from about 29,906 tons in 2003 to 46,957 in 2006.

Even in Pinellas County, where land uses have not changed dramatically, fertilizer use rose from about 6,000 tons in 1998 to 15,000 tons in 2006.

The recently passed ordinance on fertilizer use in Sarasota County, the most stringent in the state, prohibits the application of fertilizer on turf and landscape plants during the summer rainy season. It also limits the amount of nitrogen and phosphate that can be used in a single application as well as total annual applications.

Building Consensus

In Sarasota, nearly 30 organizations ranging from the Sarasota Council of Neighborhood Associations, the Sarasota Manatee Area Manufacturers Association and major environmental groups worked with county staff to develop an ordinance that protects local waters.

“It was a lengthy process by the time we went over all the issues,” Merriam said. “Not everybody is happy with every facet of it, but there is general consensus on the importance of limiting overuse of fertilizer.”

Limiting fertilizer actually benefits lawns by minimizing insect infestations, adds Stuart DeCew, the Sierra Club’s red tide and coastal pollution coordinator. “We’ve educated a lot of people about fertilizer overuse. Some landscape professionals are seeing the opportunities for environmentally friendly treatments as well.”

Education will be critical, although the ordinance calls for a warning notice on the first violation with fines of up to $500 for three or more offenses. The county is working on an interactive website that would help homeowners calculate how many pounds of fertilizer they should apply to a certain size yard, similar to those created for water use. “How the heck is somebody supposed to know what a ½ pound of phosphate per year looks like?” Merriam asks rhetorically.

Getting the ordinance passed was an educational process in and of itself, DeCew said. “We had to teach people that they could have an attractive landscape and a healthy bay, and make them understand that they’re part of the problem unless they’re working on a solution.”

Having the diverse groups sitting at the same table also created an opportunity for discussions on other topics. “There were some discussions where you couldn’t tell an environmentalist from an industry representative. It showed that we can get together to have meaningful discussions and educate each other.”

The Cost of Green: Nov. 8
A Community Forum on Residential Fertilizer Use
The Cost of Green – A Community Forum on Residential Fertilizer Use
– is a free public forum on residential fertilizer use moderated by Bobbie O’Brien of WUSF-FM, National Public Radio. Learn about the various perspectives on issues surrounding residential fertilizer use, understand pending state rulemaking and explore the role of industry, government and individuals in managing fertilizer. Scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 8, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at Weedon Island Preserve, the forum is sponsored by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program’s Community Advisory Committee, bay area chapters of the League of Women Voters and Weedon Island Preserve. Space is limited and reservations are recommended. Call Nanette O’Hara at 727-893-2765 or email


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