Lawmakers Want To Limit Fertilizer On Home Lawns

02/16/11 7:34AM By John Dillon
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AP/Dean Fosdick
(Host) A House committee wants to help Lake Champlain by limiting the use of fertilizer spread on home lawns.

That's because lawmakers are concerned that the phosphorus used to grow green grass also feeds the toxic algae in the big lake.

VPR's John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) The most visible sign of the polluted lake are the blooms of blue green algae that often flare up in the summer. The algae blooms are fed by nutrients that wash off the land from farm fields, city streets - and suburban lawns. So lawmakers are moving to strictly control phosphorus fertilizer.

(Webb) "It's one thing we can do now that isn't going to be asking for anything from the taxpayers."

(Dillon) Kate Webb is a Democrat from Shelburne. She's sponsored a bill that bans phosphorus use on lawns except when a soil test shows that the nutrient is needed.

(Webb) "After looking at a long list of things that need to be done to improve the lake, this seemed like one of the low-hanging fruit."

(Dillon) Webb points out that developed land, everything from city streets to housing subdivisions, accounts for 46 percent of the nutrient pollution that washes into the lake. And University of Vermont researcher Mary Watzin says it's important to control all sources of phosphorus.

(Watzin) "I think the law is timely and very appropriate. I'd love to see you pass it."

(Dillon) Watzin is dean of the Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources at UVM. She testified by speaker phone. Watzin said it's hard to estimate how much of the total phosphorus load in the lake comes from home fertilizer use.

(Watzin) "But we do know that in places that we've tested a significant - approaching half in some areas of the lawn tested - have more phosphorus in the soils than they need to grow good grass. So if you've got that amount of phosphorus in the soil, when it rains that phosphorus is going to leach into the water and some of it is going to leave the lawn."

(Dillon) Watzin said most lawns in the Champlain basin don't even need phosphorus to grow well.

Vermont last year banned phosphorus from dishwasher detergents. And advocates say limiting its use on lawns will be another step to a cleaner lake. Louis Porter is the Champlain Lakekeeper with the Conservation law Foundation.

(Porter) "It makes sense to go after all sources of phosphorus, particularly ones that are completely unnecessary, like most applications of lawn fertilizer. But we need to not allow that to distract us from other sources, as well, including farm run-off, stormwater run-off from impervious paved surfaces and wastewater plants, as well."

(Dillon) The House bill exempts agricultural use of phosphorus fertilizer. But it does require golf courses to prepare a nutrient management plan to make sure they're not spreading too much of the fertilizer on the fairways and greens.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.

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