Less-toxic lawns in Maryland

New regulations should limit fertilizer use and make it more safe

March 15, 2011|By Megan Cronin

Residential lawns might seem tiny in comparison to vast acres of agricultural land or swaths of highways and strip malls. But grassy areas like lawns, public parks, playing fields and golf courses actually make up nearly a quarter of Maryland's land, and the fertilizers we apply to this so-called "turf" contain nutrients that are harming the Chesapeake Bay. The good news, though, is that with simple, low-cost fixes to our turf management, we could see significant gains in clean water and a healthier bay.

We need to start taking fertilizer pollution more seriously. Recent surveys of land use in Maryland indicate that turf now occupies more land than row crops, and nearly 86 percent of that turf is residential lawns. At the same time, statistics from the Maryland Department of Agriculture show a 50 percent increase in sales of nonfarm use of fertilizers in Maryland over the last 20 years. This fertilizer poses a threat to water quality because it contains the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, the leading culprits behind the bay's annual dead zones where almost nothing can survive.

Fertilizer runoff occurs when rainfall or snowmelt washes away excess fertilizer from our lawns, golf courses and parks. It can also occur when the excess fertilizer seeps into groundwater. After it is dissolved, the nutrients in the fertilizer can drain into our local waterways and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay.

The sheer amount of turf in Maryland means urban fertilizer runoff pollution is particularly harmful here, and current laws do not adequately address this form of pollution. Maryland law limits the amount of phosphorus — a persistent pollutant — in fertilizer. However, the largest turf managers, like lawn care companies and golf courses, are exempt. Other regulations have been poorly enforced. For example, in 2009, the state only inspected 10 percent of commercial turf managers. Almost 30 percent of those companies were not in compliance with program regulations, and yet only one was fined: a mere $250.

The fact is, phosphorus is unnecessary for normal lawn care. It should be not just limited but eliminated from most fertilizers.

After 27 years of Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, we have made some progress, but we still have far to go to achieve a clean bay and clean water for all Marylanders. In 2009 the Chesapeake Bay Program, an intergovernmental body, announced that only 24 percent of water restoration goals had been achieved. Because of our failure to attain these goals, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is putting the bay on a "pollution diet" by setting limits for pollution to restore and maintain the bay's health.

To achieve these goals, Maryland and states from New York to West Virginia have proposed new water restoration plans. Fertilizer should figure prominently in these plans, especially in Maryland. Most importantly, in these difficult fiscal times, we need to find cost-effective solutions, and smart fertilizer policies will cost Maryland little to nothing.

Maryland can cost-effectively reduce fertilizer pollution by adopting three straightforward policies:

• First, Maryland should eliminate all phosphorus, whether it is organic or synthetic, from lawn fertilizers. Phosphorus is not only one of the most persistent pollutants in the bay, it is also one of the most harmful. Maryland should follow the lead of other states around the country in banning it. This change would cost the state nothing.

• Second, we should apply less fertilizer to the ground in the first place. To that end, Maryland should rewrite the guidelines that determine the timing and quantity of fertilizer applications on turf grass. These guidelines should be geared toward water quality standards, specifically the goals in our pollution diet plan. This could happen at little to no cost to the state.

• Third, we need to enforce these policies and ensure that golf course managers and lawn-care companies are following them. Maryland could take advantage of federal grants to help improve enforcement.

Together, without costing the state an arm and a leg, these three solutions would address the core of our nonfarm fertilizer pollution problems in Maryland.

The Chesapeake Bay has been in a deplorable condition for decades, but we have the power right now to make a difference. Reducing the runoff from urban fertilizer pollution is a cost-effective, relatively simple way for us to have a major impact on our local waters, delicious seafood, and the poster child for Maryland's natural beauty, the Chesapeake Bay.

Megan Cronin is a policy associate for Environment Maryland. Her e-mail is mcronin@environmentmaryland.org

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