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County: No interest in new fertilizer regs to protect the lagoon

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of February 9, 2012)

Even though fertilizer runoff is causing severe damage to the Indian River Lagoon, and even though the lagoon is the aesthetic and economic centerpiece of Indian River County, county commissioners have no plans to regulate fertilizer use to stop pollution that is killing sea grass, fish and dolphins.

 “We are nowhere near putting any kind of ordinance into effect,” says Commissioner Bob Solari, the board member most hostile to new county regulations to control poisonous chemicals that scientists say may be pushing the lagoon toward ecological collapse.

Solari and other commissioners say a county fertilizer ordinance would be unenforceable and contribute to a “hodgepodge” of differing regulations along the lagoon, causing inconvenience to lawn care and fertilizer businesses.

“Regulation would just add to the cost of somebody’s livelihood and cause the consumer to pay more in the end,” Solari says.

Solari also opposes regulation for ideological reasons.

“The county doesn’t need to pass another ordinance,” he says. “I tie these things to our democratic system that recognizes autonomous human beings. Government has passed too many corrosive regulations that dull the intellect of the individual and undermine a democratic society. I believe in the rights and liberty of the individual over some nebulous collective.”

Fertilizer contains nitrates and phosphates that feed grass and help it grow. It is widely and sometimes indiscriminately applied by homeowners, lawn care professionals and workers at golf courses and parks. When fertilizer is over-applied, and during rainstorms, dissolved nitrogen and phosphorous run off lawns and fields directly into the lagoon or into gutters, sewers and canals that lead to the lagoon.

The chemicals also enter waterways when grass clippings that have sucked up organic chemicals are swept or hosed into sewers and ditches.

The runoff and clippings cause something called nutrient overload in the waters where Indian River County residents and tourists boat, fish, swim and delight in wildlife such as dolphins and manatees. Instead of feeding lawns, the nitrogen and phosphorous feed the growth of algae that consumes oxygen and makes lagoon water murky and slimy, cutting off sunlight to sea grass and starting a domino effect of ecological degradation.

The problem seems to be getting worse.

According to Jim Egan, executive director of the Marine Resources Council, the ugly algae bloom in the lagoon last summer was unprecedented, lasting longer and extending over a wider area that ever before, and it was unquestionably fed in part by fertilizer runoff.

“People are over-fertilizing their lawns by 500 percent and much of that fertilizer is ending up in the lagoon,” says Dr. Rob Moir, founder of the Ocean River Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people make a difference where they live and work through environmental stewardship and science.

As reported in this paper last week, bottlenose dolphins in the lagoon suffer epidemic levels of disease and unnatural mortality because of pollution.

“Forty-three dolphins died in the lagoon in 2008 and 48 died in 2009 because of toxins in the water,” Moir says. Deaths are highest during the rainy summer season when the largest amount of fertilizer is flushed into the estuary.

Pollution also comes from other sources, but scientists and environmentalists interviewed for this article say unanimously that fertilizer runoff is a major cause of lagoon degradation and all agree regulating the type and application of fertilizer is smart policy that would help protect and heal the lagoon.

“Fertilizer regulation is needed,” says Richard Baker, biology professor emeritus at the University of Florida and president of the Pelican Island Audubon Society. “Regulation should require slow release nitrogen, no phosphorous and no fertilizer applied during the rainy season."

Baker, Egan and Moir are joined in their outlook by Edie Widder, world-renowned marine biologist and founder of Ocean Research and Conservation Association in Fort Pierce; George Jones, head of Indian Riverkeepers; county water expert, author and island resident Deborah Ecker; and Stephen McCulloch, a research scientist and founder of the Marine Mammal Research and Conservation Program at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute.

“Without question fertilizer ordinances are good for lagoon health,” says McCulloch. “It is commonsense.”
And it isn’t just marine biologists and environmentalists who see this as a clear-cut issue.

A growing number of nearby counties and cities within Indian River County have passed or are working to pass fertilizer regulation ordinances to protect the waterway upon which their economic wellbeing depends.

 After hearing a presentation by Widder, the Vero Beach City Council voted unanimously to enact an ordinance regulating fertilizer use and prohibiting organic material in canals and the lagoon.

“We cannot afford to continue ignoring water quality,” says Mayor Pilar Turner. “The lagoon is responsible for $800 million a year in revenue for our community.”

“I think it is a good thing to implement these types of programs,” says Indian River County Utilities Director Erik Olson, the man who leads the county’s clean-water initiatives. “Mayor Turner is a very smart lady and I have a lot of respect for her. I think Vero Beach is heading in the right direction. I applaud their efforts.”

Martin County’s ordinance, considered by many a model for effective regulation, requires commercial applicators to take a short course in best practices for fertilizer application, prohibits putting fertilizer down within 10 feet of a waterway, mandates the use of slow release fertilizer and bans the application of fertilizer during the rainy season, from June 1 to Sept. 30, when torrential downpours are likely to wash any chemicals put on lawns into the lagoon.

“Given the condition of our estuary and rivers, we have to get serious about this problem,” say Martin County Commissioner Patrick Hayes, who made the motion to put effective regulations in place.

Despite clear science and political momentum along the lagoon, no Indian River County commissioner currently favors fertilizer regulation.

Their self-described positions range from open-minded to adamantly opposed.

“I don’t know whether I am for it or against it,” says Commission Chairman Gary Wheeler. “I am not a scientist. I would be willing to look at a proposal and weigh the advantages and disadvantages.”

Commissioner Joseph Flescher says he would consider a ban on the sale of fertilizer containing phosphorous but no other ordinances at this time. He also said he is researching the subject to get a better handle on the science.

Commissioners Solari, Wesley Davis and Peter O’Bryan oppose regulation.

One of their objections is that a fertilizer ban would be unenforceable – a position that seems to assume most citizens would willingly break the law to put down excess fertilizer.

Mayor Turner sees it differently. “An ordinance would help get compliance. On the West Coast [of Florida], the existence of an ordinance has had a great response and vendors no longer stock products that would be harmful. I believe it will have a great effect here, as well.”

Commissioners say they don’t want “fertilizer police” patrolling streets, but the experience of Sarasota County, where fertilizer regulation went into effect in 2007, shows regulation combined with education drastically reduces the amount of poisonous chemicals going into the ocean without the need for a swat team swooping down on every guy in Bermuda shorts pushing a spreader.

The Sarasota model also undercuts the idea that a county ordinance would handicap lawn-care professionals.

Michael Juchnowicz, owner of Gardenmasters of Southwest Florida Inc., has 10,000-plus lawn-care customers on the west coast. According to a Jan. 26 article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, he now uses 200 tons less fertilizer each year in Sarasota County and his customers’ lawns are as green as ever.

He says his chemical costs have dropped as a result of regulation while his business has stayed strong.

Palmer Ranch has also seen the benefits of regulation. According to the Tribune, “In 2006, the 10,000-acresubdivision spent $96,000 replacing turf damaged by fungus . . . as well as chinch bugs, [that] feed on the type of growth spurred by excess nitrogen.”

By 2011, the subdivision’s “turf replacement costs dropped to practically nothing.”

Both Palmer Ranch and Gardenmasters say they would continue with practices now required by ordinance even if the ordinance was repealed because it’s “the smart thing to do.”

In regard to commissioners’ hodgepodge fears, Davis says he prefers to wait for the state to enact comprehensive fertilizer regulation that will avoid the possibility of differing local regulations.

“We don’t want some poor guy out there with four different licenses hanging off his vest,” Davis says.

But the state has already acted. 

Under Governor Charlie Crist’s administration, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection created and distributed a model fertilizer regulation for cities and counties to use, so that standards would be sensible and uniform.

The commission could enact that ordinance at any time.

It could also coordinate with the five cities in the county, as it does on many other issues, to create a uniform local policy custom tailored to conditions in Indian River County.

The other problem with waiting for the state to act is the current administration seems indifferent if not downright hostile to clean water regulation and enforcement, according to a wide range of environmentalists, scientists and political leaders.

So waiting for the state to protect the lagoon that is the heart and soul of Indian River County, instead of using home rule power to defend it, may not be the best strategy.

“We put off enacting an ordinance for a long time waiting for the state to act,” says Martin County Commissioner Hayes. “After a while, I became concerned the state was more interested in protecting the fertilizer industry than preventing pollution.”

Hayes calls the idea that patchwork of regulations will bring the lawn-care industry down “garbage.”

“That is defeatist thought without any foundation,” he says. “When a guy is working on one of our golf courses, he isn’t worried about what the regulation is in a neighboring county.”

Scientists and environmentalists agree education is the most important part of correcting bad fertilizer practices, but they believe information should be backed up by regulation to protect the health of the environment and the community.

But Solari continues to see it as an either/or proposition. “The last thing we need is another corrosive ordinance,” he says. “I believe we can accomplish the same thing through education without undermining the will and liberty of the individual.”

Spoonbill and Egret Marshes cut lagoon pollution, but not enough

Even though the Board of County Commissioners has failed to act so far to regulate fertilizer use to reduce the flow of poisonous chemicals damaging the Indian River Lagoon and killing wildlife, the county has taken other action to protect and clean up local waters.

Under the leadership of Utilities Director Erik Olson, the county opened two innovative water purification facilities in 2010, and has another similar facility planned.  It also installed a filter system on the main relief canal to help keep large organic material and garbage out of the lagoon.

Commissioners are quick to point to these accomplishments when deflecting calls for fertilizer limits even though the worsening condition of the lagoon shows more needs to be done and done quickly to protect the estuary that is the county’s aesthetic and economic centerpiece.

The Spoonbill Marsh on the shore of the lagoon near 57th St. was created to dispose of briny wastewater from the north county water treatment plant. The plant cleans groundwater by a process of filtration called reverse osmosis that removes salts and other impurities to produce drinkable water.

The leftover brine used to be pumped into the main relief canal that dumped it directly into the lagoon, where the high concentration of salt altered natural water balance and disrupted marine ecology.

Now the wastewater is mixed with water pumped from the lagoon and then filtered through the marsh, where oyster beds and natural vegetation diffuse the salts and absorb excess nutrients as the blended water makes its way back into the lagoon.

“We mix about 2.5 million gallons of lagoon water with 750,000 gallons of brine each day,” says Olson.

Excess nutrients in lagoon water are mainly nitrates and phosphates, most of which come from fertilizer runoff. They harm the lagoon by increasing the growth of algae that consumes oxygen and makes the water murky and slimy, killing sea grass and fish and causing disease and death among marine mammals.

So far the marsh has removed more than 8,000 pounds of nitrogen and more than 3,700 pounds of phosphorous, according to Utilities Department Capital Projects Manager Mike Hotchkiss.

The Egret Marsh, which opened in July 2010, removed another 5,200 pounds nitrogen and 1,470 pounds of phosphorous in 2011 by pumping polluted canal water over an algae bed that absorbs the nutrients as the water flows back into the canal.

The marshes are marvels of environmental engineering, and a third project slated to open in 2013 will provide more relief for the lagoon, combining the functions of brine disposal for the south county water treatment plant with purification of canal water.

The projects treat only a small fraction of the polluted runoff damaging the estuary and do nothing to deal with direct runoff that doesn’t go through one of the marshes.

When marine biologist and ORCA founder Edie Widder mapped pollution between the Vero Beach bridges, she found the most severe levels in and near the finger canals south of the Barber Bridge where excess nutrients come fertilizer runoff and grass clippings loaded with nitrogen.

Oysters in that area are already deformed and the marsh projects do nothing to prevent that kind of direct pollution.

Regulation that requires use of slow-release fertilizer that will stay on lawns instead of running off and bans most  fertilizer application during the rainy season when downpours wash the chemicals into the lagoon would protect the environment and save the county money in the long run, according George Jones, head of Indian Riverkeepers. 

The EPA and State Department of Environmental Protection are in the process of implementing restrictions on the amount of nutrients in Florida waters and Jones says it costs a minimum of $700 a pound to remove those chemicals from the lagoon.

“Certain counties and cities will be required to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous in bodies of water like the lagoon,” says Olson.

When those retractions take hold the county could be on the hook for huge clean-up expenses – or it could pass the kind of common sense regulation working well in many other Florida counties right now to avoid the problem ahead of time.