Local fertilizer ordinances under attack

July 6, 2023

Preserve common sense solutions to our water quality crisis

Our waters are our greatest resource. Yet algae blooms, some containing toxins, have recently been observed from Naples all the way up to Lake Okeechobee. Is another “lost summer” to green slime, brown water, and dead sea life upon us?

Unfortunately, one of the simplest and most obvious tools to protect our waters is under threat. In a last-minute attack during this past legislative session, and without a line-item veto from Governor DeSantis, any amendments or new local fertilizer ordinances are on hiatus for at least one year.

While the good news is that existing local fertilizer ordinances are still valid and can be enforced, any amendments to strengthen the existing ordinance or adopt a new ordinance cannot be pursued at this time.

What’s even more concerning is that we fear existing fertilizer ordinances could be at risk in next year’s legislative session.

For years, the Conservancy has been working to protect our precious waters for the health of our economy, our quality of life, and the organisms that depend on our estuaries and wetlands. Unfortunately, many of Florida’s waters are impaired -not meeting water quality standards. In particular, the overabundance of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are among the biggest culprits. These pollutants can come from many different sources, but urban and agricultural fertilizers are a big part of that equation.

Mangroves In Rookery Bay
Mangroves in Rookery Bay

That’s why it is imperative that municipalities, neighborhoods, and individual homeowners step up and be part of the solution by making the changes necessary to stop pollution at its source. Once pollutants are in the environment, it is much more difficult – and costly – to treat and remove them.

All too often, overfertilized backyards and urban spaces can add to our water quality woes. Common-sense solutions, such as the local fertilizer ordinances used in over 100 cities and counties throughout the state of Florida, are one helpful step in combating harmful algal blooms fed by nutrient pollution.

In our area, the City of Naples was one of the first to adopt a strong fertilizer ordinance in 2008, and they were followed by communities from Marco Island to Cape Coral and beyond. These ordinances focus on local needs and conditions, such as the quality of our waterbodies, and the amount of nutrients already in soils. They stipulate when, where, and how much fertilizer can be applied to urban residential landscapes. They embody concepts such as not applying fertilizers when nutrients may be available through frequent rainfall or via reclaimed water. They allow for buffers between fertilized areas and swales, ponds, and other waterbodies which helps limit the amount of fertilizer that goes directly into our waterways.

When we adopt fertilizer practices on our lawns and urban community spaces, we also limit the domino effect of needing to apply algaecide into our stormwater ponds and lakes.  To illustrate this point, when fertilizer is swept into waterbodies through stormwater runoff, it allows algae to flourish in these ponds.

Once algae becomes a problem in ponds, a common practice is to apply algaecide, like copper sulfate.  However, the use of copper sulfate in stormwater ponds can result in further water quality impairment of many of our local waterbodies, like Naples Bay, Clam Bay, Haldeman Creek, and Rock Creek, where copper levels have been found to exceed allowable standards.

This is just one example of how stopping the ripple effect of overfertilization is critical to protecting our waters.

These cost-effective measures have been in use for over 15 years and with good results. Lee County did a study after the 2010 adoption of a protective local ordinance and found that conditions improved in their study ponds.

When trying to protect our ‘liquid gold’ water resources, we need all tools in the toolbox. Local ordinances are an important part of this equation.

While substantial funding continues to be included annually in the State’s budget to tackle the clean-up of polluted waters, meaningful regulations to stop pollution from entering our waterways continue to be lacking, with the unfortunate outcome being that we are unlikely to get ahead of the devastating effects the current water quality crisis has on our environment, economy and quality of life.  In the face of continued water quality conditions below state standards and harmful algae blooms appearing with frequency throughout southwest Florida, we call on our legislators to preserve the local community’s ability to adopt and amend proactive, effective, and stringent fertilizer ordinances.

For more information about this issue, visit: www.conservany.org/water.