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New Proposed Limits on Phosphate in Residential Lawn Fertilizers
(Beyond Pesticides, April 8, 2004)
Vermont is likely to join Minnesota this year by passing statewide legislation that would prohibit homeowners from applying granular fertilizer in excess of 3 percent phosphorus by weight to residential lawns.

As springtime approaches, the number of state bills restricting the use of high-phosphate fertilizers on residential lawns (if not farms and commercial landscapes as well) is likely to grow due to pressure from lake associations, environmentalists, and groups protecting water quality.

Around this time last year Minnesota passed similar legislation statewide, which went into effect on January 1, 2004, requiring most homeowners to either use non-phosphorous fertilizer or get their lawns tested to prove the need for phosphorous and receive an exemption. (See Daily News story.) Vermont passed its bill in the Senate last month, according to the The Caledonian-Record. The bill is now due to enter the state’s House for further consideration and ultimate passage.

Phosphate is a major source of lake and stream pollution across the country and is causing many states to look hard at preventive solutions. High levels of phosphate support over-production of algae and waterweeds. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, “Increased phosphorus in lakes often results in algal blooms turning lakes green, leaving unsightly scum, foul odors and bad tasting water. In some lakes, repeated algal blooms can result in fish kills or loss of the cold water fishery.”

The Caledonian-Record in Vermont reports that the most popular bags of lawn fertilizer sold in area stores in Vermont contain 10 percent phosphorous; a percentage much higher than the 3 percent limit proposed in the Vermont Bill.

Anti-pesticide activists view the phosphate limits as a positive move not only for environmental and water quality purposes, but also because less waterweeds means less battles with municipalities proposing as a solution the use of toxic herbicides which can harm human health and aquatic ecosystems.

"The use of phosphorous fertilizer in the areas that are abundant in phosphorous, not only is unnecessary, but it is also very expensive for local units of government to counteract. One pound of phosphorous produces 300 to 500 pounds of algae, and it costs at least $200 a pound to remove it," said Minnesota Rep. Peggy Leppik, author the House version of the MN bill, to Minnesota’s public radio in 2002.

Homeowners can unintentionally contribute to water pollution by unnecessarily applying fertilizers that contain high levels of phosphorous. But run-off from high-phosphorous fertilizers is considered just one of many sources of the phosphate pollution problem. Street gutters clogged from plant residues like grass clippings, leaves and dog excretion have 30 to 40 percent higher phosphate levels in their surface runoff than gutters that are regularly cleaned.

For more tips see Beyond Pesticides Alternatives Least Toxic Lawn Care Factsheet, and Beyond Pesticides’ Lawns and Landscapes project page. Click here for an explanation of the adage: “One pound of phosphorous produces 300 to 500 pounds of algae.”

TAKE ACTION: Protect your lakes, streams, and precious waterways from phosphate pollution and impending herbicidal doom. Write your state representatives and ask them to follow the lead of Minnesota and Vermont and propose similar legislation. You can also actively prevent water pollution by practicing organic lawn care and not using fertilizers that contain pesticides or phosphorous, keep leaves and lawn clippings off streets, driveways and other hard surfaces that can run off into gutters, and prevent erosion by covering all slopes with plant materials.