EDITORIAL -- March/April 2013

New Lawn Fertilizer Law Needs Amendment

A new Connecticut law regulating the use of phosphorus on established lawns took effect Jan. 1, 2013. Products impacted include lawn fertilizer, soil amendments and compost. The new regulations allow for a $500 fine. The text of Senate Bill 440 can be found at www.cga.ct.gov

The goal of the new law is commendable . . . to reduce pollution in lakes and streams that can lead to depleted oxygen levels (eutrophication) caused by an increase in phytoplankton (algal blooms).

Phosphorus is one of the three primary components of fertilizer. Fertilizer labeling tells us the percentage of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium it contains: N for nitrogen, P for phosphorus and K for potassium. Phosphorus is necessary for general vigor and aids reproductive processes.

The reason for the new restriction is that established lawns normally don't require additional phosphorus in Connecticut. Dawn Pettinelli, a soil scientist at UConn, tells us that native, unworked soil in Connecticut tends to be low in phosphorus. However, she says there's usually enough phosphorus in soil that has been worked.

We applaud the intent of this bill but wish the Environment Committee had done more to recognize the difference between processed rock phosphate and other sources of phosphorus because the new law will probably have a negative impact on manufacturers and users of organic products.

We hope we're wrong but this law seems likely to encourage the use of synthetic fertilizer with high values of water-soluble (quick-release) nitrogen and discourage the use of balanced, slow-release, organic products with low N-P-K values.

You also have to wonder why the bill does nothing to address the overuse of nitrogen in fertilizer.

While phosphorus is generally considered to be the limiting factor in freshwater pollution, nitrogen arguably plays a role as well. Nitrogen, on the other hand, is generally considered to be the primary source of marine pollution. Remember, runoff makes its way from rivers to oceans.

If our goal is to reduce pollution and improve water quality, why not address the overuse of phosphorus AND nitrogen?

The Specifics

No application of phosphorus on established lawns is allowed without a recent soil test (2 years) showing a phosphorus deficiency. As the saying goes, "If you're not testing, you're guessing." We should all be testing. (Both UConn and The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station [CAES] do soil testing as does Harrington's Organic Land Care in Bloomington.)

No application of phosphorus is allowed within 20 feet of a body of water. If your spreader has a deflector, it drops to 15 feet. A no-fertilize buffer zone is a simple approach that reduces pollution from runoff.

No application of phosphorus is allowed between Dec. 1 and March 15. Applying fertilizer when lawns are dormant is wasteful and adds to pollution unnecessarily. UConn recommends the application of fertilizer only between April 15 and Oct. 15, when plants are actively growing.

At point of purchase, products containing more than 0.67 percent phosphorus must be kept separately and identified with appropriate signage.

No application of phosphorus is allowed on impervious surfaces.

Many of these provisions are essentially just codifying common sense.

The Exemptions

New lawns or lawns being repaired (seeded, reseeded, resodded or overseeded)

Residents with a recent soil test (2 years) showing a need for phosphorus

Fertilizer with a phosphorus content of 0.67 percent or less. This may exempt some types of compost but will probably disqualify manures, biosolids and many other organic products.

Agricultural land and golf courses

Is All Phosphorus Created Equal?

Many scientists will tell you that "phosphorus is phosphorus." Others are convinced that organically derived phosphorus is more tightly bound and less likely to be washed away in runoff or leaching. The exemption of products with 0.67 percent or less phosphorus appears to be a nod in that direction.

No matter which side you agree with in the organic phosphorus vs. synthetic phosphorus debate, there's definitely a difference when you consider how the phosphorus is produced.

The typical method of processing rock phosphate for use in synthetic fertilizer involves the use of acids and the byproduct, phosphogypsum, is radioactive. Also, rock phosphate is a non-renewable, finite resource and the world supply is dwindling. Estimates vary but some predict inadequate supplies in just three or four decades. Since phosphorus is critical for agriculture, we'll need to develop and encourage alternative sources (such as organics) and/or recycling strategies.

We should be encouraging the fledgling organic industry, not putting obstacles in its way.

Problems for Organic Producers

Paul Sachs of North Country Organics tells us that Connecticut's law is problematic for manufacturers and users of organic products because it's easy to remove phosphorus from synthetic fertilizer but difficult or impossible to extract from organic products.

Joseph Magazzi, a consulting microbiologist and co-owner of Green Earth Ag and Turf in North Branford, sums it up thusly ... "I think this is a well-intentioned law that is meant to help clean up Long Island Sound as well as our lakes and other water systems. However, a major flaw in this legislation is the lack of an exemption for organic fertilizers, and this could have unintended detrimental consequences for the environment. Organic fertilizers typically contain very low amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen compared to synthetic fertilizers. Also, organic fertilizers are balanced with other important micronutrients as well as organic matter, and these components help the phosphorus and nitrogen remain in the soil longer -- reducing leaching compared to synthetic forms of fertilizers. Since organic fertilizers are from complex natural sources such as fish, compost or seaweed, the phosphorus cannot be removed and this law will essentially result in a ban on organic fertilizers in Connecticut. Since synthetic fertilizers can be easily altered to remove phosphorus, this will force organic landscapers or home growers to use synthetic fertilizers instead, and consequently increase nitrogen use. Thus, instead of a small amount of phosphorus being used with less leaching, the law will force synthetic fertilizer use (with typically higher amounts of nitrogen) which will more easily leach. This is just as bad for our water systems and the environment in general as synthetic fertilizers use much more fossil fuel in the manufacturing process than organic fertilizers."

Monitoring will be necessary to see if this law is effective or whether, as some fear, it has a negative impact by creating less healthy lawns more prone to runoff and leaching.

New Jersey Law

We believe New Jersey's law is superior for a number of reasons.

It allows the use of up to 0.25 pounds of organically derived phosphorus per 1,000 sq. ft. This not only exempts a certain amount of organic phosphorus, it places the emphasis on application amounts instead of the composition of the product.

The law caps the amount of nitrogen that can be used in a given application and specifies that at least 20 percent be slow-release nitrogen. It also caps the total amount of nitrogen that can be applied in a year.

New Jersey also prohibits the application of fertilizer before a heavy rain.

Targeting Homeowners?

We should also all be aware that lawn fertilizer isn't the only source of phosphorus pollution. Erosion from agricultural lands, golf courses, phosphates in laundry detergent, discharges from wastewater treatment plants and failing septic systems are also potential sources.

People often wonder why agricultural land and golf courses are exempted. It's a fair question. Presumably, it's because fertilizing is a cost of doing business for farmers and greenskeepers, and they already test to make sure they're using as little as possible. Lawn fertilizer may not be the primary source of phosphorus pollution but it still needs to be addressed.

Even vegetative matter and animal waste play a part. Leaves, grass, pollen and Canada geese contribute to phosphorus pollution. Remember, leaving grass clippings on your lawn is, over the course of a year, equivalent to one or two applications of fertilizer.

Our Advice

Some of the phosphorus present in soil is unavailable to plants because it's bound up with iron, calcium and other elements. Aeration, mycorrhizals, phosphate solubilizing bacteria and pH adjustment can increase its availability. In addition, a healthy lawn with good soil structure and organics is going to have better water retention and be less likely to leach pollutants.

Get a soil test and follow the advice. Be sure to ask for organic recommendations if that's what you want. Don't fertilize before a heavy rain and don't fertilize impervious surfaces such as driveways or patios. Refrain from fertilizing adjacent to bodies of water and over the winter, and use slow-release products that are less likely to be carried away in runoff or through leaching.

And, remember, you can still use fertilizer with phosphorus on new lawns and when you're repairing, resodding or reseeding. Overseeding lawns in the fall, or any time they get thin or bare, is a routine part of lawn maintenance.

If you're really concerned about water pollution, consider adding a vegetative buffer in the no-fertilize zone between your lawn and bodies of water. Riparian buffers act as natural filters and help reduce pollution from runoff. You can also consider shrinking your lawn, establishing a meadow or replacing impermeable surfaces with permeable ones.

-- Will Rowlands

Thanks to Dawn Pettinelli at UConn, Joseph Magazzi at Green Earth Ag and Turf, Paul Sachs at North Country Organics and Todd Harrington at Harrington's Organic Land Care for their input. Any errors are mine.

Will Rowlands