Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Upcoming fertilizer restrictions intended to protect water quality

By BRIAN BIENKOWSKI

Capital News Service

LANSING — Phosphorous fertilizers will soon be restricted as the state addresses one way that the nutrient infiltrates waters and spurs the creation of zones of low oxygen that harm aquatic life.

The ban begins next January. Exempt are new lawns and those that test low for phosphorous, as well as farmers and golf courses where management has taken a state-approved fertilizer training.

Michigan is one of five Great Lakes states with limits on the nutrient that promotes algae and weed growth in water. When the weeds die, the bacteria that feasts on them sucks up the oxygen in the water and creates dead zones that kill fish and other aquatic species.

Minnesota and Illinois already had similar limits in place while New York’s restrictions will take effect next January. Wisconsin is reviewing existing restrictions.

Experts say the goal is to keep phosphorous from settling into lakes and streams, noting that fertilizer that gets onto pavement, frozen ground or compacted soil often runs off into waterways.

Michigan recently banned phosphorous in dishwashing detergents after previously outlawing phosphorous-heavy laundry detergents.

Although a naturally occurring element, the near-shore areas of the Great Lakes have had consistently elevated levels of phosphorous due to human use. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, four of the five Great Lakes had elevated levels in the near-shore areas in 2009.

“This creates problems outside of threats to ecosystems,” said John Nevin, public affairs advisor of the International Joint Commission, an agency that advises the U.S. and Canada on water issues. “This affects the quality of drinking water, causes illness in swimmers, disrupts fisheries and leads to beach closures.”

Fertilizer isn’t the only culprit. Agricultural run-off, inadequate municipal wastewater and residential septic systems, industrial livestock, ecosystem changes from invasive mussels, and climate change impact are all likely factors, according to a recent commission report.

Michigan’s ban only applies to commercial and residential lawns. Farm restrictions don’t seem to be on the horizon, according to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Farmers routinely check their soil and are very aware of nutrient levels,” said Robin Rosenbaum, plant industry section manager at the department. “They typically don’t use any more fertilizer than they need to.”

Groups lobbying for the new ban recognize agricultural use as a significant part of the problem, but, nonetheless, credit the law for taking a step in the right direction.

Farm use “is certainly a contributor, but at this point it is not reasonable to ban phosphorous in agricultural applications,” said Hugh McDiarmid Jr., the communications director at the Michigan Environmental Council. “But we do need to continue efforts to educate both farmers and those at golf courses on responsible fertilizer use.”

A uniform ban across the state makes it easier for everyone, including fertilizer manufacturers, McDiarmid said.

Rosenbaum said statewide restrictions had been discussed since 2003, adding that opposition to the new law was light.

Jeff Fedorchak is vice president of government affairs at ServiceMaster, a large fertilizer company based in Memphis, Tenn., with brands that include Trugreen and Terminix.

Fedorchak called the new law “a common-sense approach agreed to by multiple stakeholders, and it enjoyed strong bipartisan support with legislators as a result.”

ServiceMaster partnered with the Michigan Environmental Council to support the legislation.

Several counties and cities had bans in place before the state law passed, making it difficult for fertilizer companies. Existing phosphorous restrictions will stay in effect, but the new law trumps any future restrictions by local governments.

The success of local restrictions helped push the state law through, said Executive Director Laura Rubin of the Ann Arbor-based Huron River Watershed Council. In 1997, Ann Arbor adopted a ban that exempts agricultural uses. The city council found a 36 percent decrease in phosphorous levels at urban-area creeks between 2003 and 2008, according to a 2009 report.

“We have seen a definite trend of reductions in phosphorous since the fertilizer restrictions,” Rubin said. “The greater reductions in urban areas speak to the effectiveness of the ordinances.”

Rosenbaum said Agriculture and Rural Development will enforce the ban through periodic testing of lawns treated by fertilizer companies. Enforcement will largely be “complaint- based,” but the department will check regularly with companies that apply fertilizers.

The International Joint Commission’s Nevin said that while the restrictions address part of the problem, scientists still aren’t sure of the sources for all the phosphorous in the Great Lakes.

“What we need is more monitoring and a regular review of inputs into the lakes. Before we can stop it, we need to answer the question – where is it coming from?”

Brian Bienkowski writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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