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County mailing on fertilizer seen 'not worth the postage'

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of October 11, 2012)

The county commission, after stalling for months on action to protect the Indian River Lagoon, has decided to mail residents an outdated informational pamphlet, provided free by a fertilizer company, that fails to mention nitrogen, Florida’s leading pollutant, and leaves out any warning about the environmental dangers of over-fertilizing lawns or fertilizing before heavy rains.

“This may look to some folks as if the commission is fulfilling its promise to educate citizens on fertilizers in place of a strong ordinance, but it does not educate or motivate,” says Richard Baker, biology professor emeritus at the University of Florida and president of the Pelican Island Audubon Society. “It’s not worth the added postage taxpayers have to pay to get it.”

After months of talking about how education is better than regulation to protect the Lagoon from the devastating effects of fertilizer pollution that feeds algae blooms and smothers sea life, the county commission voted to send out the pamphlet called “Backyard Conservation: Lawns and the Environment” to 40,000 households.

Unfortunately, the outdated pamphlet – provided to the county free by Scotts, the largest producer of residential fertilizer – does not specifically address the Florida environment and fails to mention nitrogen, which has been identified by the state Department of Environmental Protection as the worst fertilizer pollutant in Florida waters.

It also leaves out any warning about the dangers of fertilizing when “heavy rainfall is expected, especially tropical or frontal systems,” which is the first item listed on a DEP summery of “Best Management Practices for Turfgrass and Lawn Fertilization.”

“The distribution of these pamphlets is a start, but given the lack of some very important guidelines they fall short of accomplishing their intended goal,” says Warren Falls, managing director of ORCA, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association.

“It has been proven that the combination of an ordinance and education has the greatest chance of success. I think the pamphlet would get more attention, and have a greater effect, if there were a strong ordinance to support it.”

The pamphlet the county plans to send out with monthly utility bills sometime in the near future does have some good environmental tips. It addresses in general terms that stormwater runoff carries pollution and warns that grass clippings – which contain nitrogen absorbed from fertilizer – should not be allowed to enter waterways.

It notes the importance of keeping fertilizer on grassy areas and not letting it scatter into water or onto concrete surfaces, where it is more likely to be washed away, and it advises against the use of fertilizers containing phosphorous.

Phosphorous is another chemical that is a problem in the Indian River Lagoon and other Florida waters. But the pamphlet’s warning is somewhat redundant at this point since Scotts has already agreed to eliminate phosphorous from its best-selling fertilizers by the end of the year.

In other words, the county is sending out a mass mailing that warns about a chemical that will not be widely available in home fertilizers in a few months while failing to warn about the danger or provide guidelines for the use of nitrogen, the chemical that is the biggest ongoing problem.

The question of education versus regulation to stop toxic fertilizer runoff damaging the lagoon came up last year after ORCA mapped pollution between the Barber Bridge and 17th Street causeway and found high levels of nitrogen contamination from fertilizer and grass clippings dumped or washed into the estuary.

Fertilizer pollution causes 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.

Researchers found deformed oysters and other evidence of ecological decay between the bridges and the cities of Vero Beach, Sebastian and Indian River Shores passed ordinances regulating fertilizer use.

Led by Commissioner Bob Solari, the county commission refused to act.

“As far as I am concerned, the best way to deal with fertilizer pollution is to use education,” Solari said in February. “Our storm water department has done a lot. They put out a newsletter and a commercial and do public events.”

The commission subsequently fired the county stormwater education coordinator, the person who put on the educational events Solari referred to, and eliminated her position as a budget-cutting measure.

Vero Beach Mayor Pilar Turner has said the lagoon contributes $800 million annually to the county economy, and according to St. John’s River Water Management District the estuary provides a $3.7-billion annual economic benefit along its 150-mile length. Sport and commercial fishing, tourism and property values in The Moorings, Johns Island, Windsor and other communities along the waterway are dependent on a healthy lagoon.

But commissioners decided the $60,000 annual cost of a stormwater education staff member to help protect that resource was not a good investment of taxpayer money.

“The commissioners talk the talk, but when it comes to really protecting the Lagoon – which is a much larger local and regional economic engine than Piper or Dodgertown or other projects they have spent millions of taxpayer dollars on – they don’t walk the walk,” said Vero Beach environmental consultant David Cox, Ph.D. when the education position was eliminated.

Now the commission is sending out a pamphlet experts say is faulty to fill the gap, but it may be too little, too late.

Since commissioners began to talk about the value of education as an environmental aid, during the period they refused to take action in the form of an ordinance and fired the stormwater education coordinator, sea grass has disappeared from the lagoon north of the 17th Street Bridge to beyond the county’s northern border.

Since sea grass is the foundation of the lagoon’s ecology, the loss threatens birdlife, bottlenose dolphins, manatees and green sea turtles, which mature in the estuary’s sheltered waters before braving the Atlantic.

Most resident game fish are already gone, according to lagoon scientists and longtime fishermen.

“We caught an abundance of fish last year in that area. You can’t catch a single fish there now, other than some migratory species like ladyfish and jack that are passing through,” says fishing guide Captain Paul Dritenbas, operator of Reel Life Charters, who has fished the lagoon for 55 years.

“This is a crisis,” says Grant Gilmore, Ph.D., senior scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc. “Everyone should be concerned.” 

A massive effort is underway by area scientists and government agencies to determine the cause of the sea grass devastation. It seems unlikely fertilizer pollution is the only culprit – but the chemical runoff is not helping the situation and the county’s pamphlet is ill-designed to stop the suffocating flow of nutrients.

“The pamphlet the commissioners intend to distribute, produced by Scotts, Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the National Association of Conservation Districts, is general information for lawn care and does not appear specific to a region or state or include some very important guidelines,” says Falls.

“The Lagoon is dying and this commission refuses to address residential run off by passing a strong fertilizer ordinance,” says Baker.  “Instead the sea grasses and the fishing industry are gone from most of the county’s lagoon.”