Fertilizer Follies — Inaction in Action at LINAP

Two years back, Save The Great South Bay was invited to become a member of the Fertilizer Workgroup for The Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP).   LINAP, a multiyear initiative to reduce nitrogen in Long Island’s surface and groundwaters, was established by Governor Cuomo as a response to a crisis:  All our bays rivers and ponds on Long Island are listed as impaired.   Excess nitrogen is triggering enormous algal blooms, degrading our bays, damaging our fisheries and shellfisheries, and threatening what is a $6 billion dollar tourist industry on Long Island, as well as home values, for what is Long Island without its waters?

In addition,  our drinking water, which we take from the aquifer that was left by glaciers 11,000 years ago, and rests below us, is being contaminated at an alarming rate by nitrogen.   Much of that nitrogen is coming from the 500,000 + cesspools and septic tanks that rest in Long Island’s sandy soil.   Some portion, though, is from fertilizers with estimates varying between 7% and 15% depending on where and when, if there was recently a rain event, etc.

The data on this could be improved.  Suffice it to say, the contribution from fertilizers is a small portion of what is still an enormous problem, but still is significant given it will take many billions to address our wastewater issues in Nassau and Suffolk.

I wish I could say that the Fertilizer Workgroup was making headway in addressing this portion of the nitrogen problem.     Alas, it is not.    After a year of discussion and convening, with representatives from the landscaping industry, from fertilizer manufacturers, from golf course management, and from the agricultural industry, the main focus remains on the homeowner.  The landscaping, golf management, and agricultural professions have their regulations and certifications, it is stipulated, so that according to the committee’s consensus, it all comes down to homeowners over-applying commercial fertilizers.

With this as the beginning working assumption, environmental groups have proposed that lawn fertilizers should not contain more than 12% nitrogen in the bag, with no more than 50% water soluble.  The theory is that the nitrogen then would be taken up by the lawn’s root system, instead of washing out into our creeks, ponds, and bays.  There has been a lot of push back on that.   There are a number of products now on the shelf now that couldn’t be used.  Homeowners will continue to demand their bright green lawns.   The Kentucky Bluegrass we see on the typical suburban lawn will be starved for nutrients.

Here is where the recommendations sit, in draft form.   These recommendations were taken from legislation already adopted in other states:

Homeowners would not be able to apply more than .6 lbs of nitrogen per 1000 square feet of lawn no more than 3-4 times a year.

On our last conference call, I noted the following:

  1.  These guidelines are unenforceable.   No one will be actually checking to see if a homeowner is in compliance with this regulation.
  2.  Worse, compliance would be difficult to achieve.   It was seriously proposed that the homeowner would lay out a bed sheet on their lawn, determine what percent of 1000 square feet that sheet was, run their spreader evenly over it, gather up all the fertilizer dispensed on the bedsheet, pour all that fertilizer into a jar, weigh it, then multiply that weight by the percent nitrogen content in the fertilizer in order to get to that .6 lbs per 1000 square ft guideline, which would be helpfully printed on the bags of fertilizer offered for retail sale.   No one has or ever will do this, yet this suggestion was made in all seriousness.
  3. You flat out do not need ANY nitrogen-based fertilizer to have an attractive yard.   We use excess nitrogen, pesticides and and water to support non-native mono-crops like Kentucky Bluegrass.  Natives belong here.  Planting them helps to restore local habitat.  It helps to take nitrogen out of the groundwater, which should be our goal.   Mulching your leaves and grass clippings instead of sending them to a landfill is the best thing you can do for your lawn and for the environment.

This did not sit well with many on the call.   One gentleman asked where I was from, who I was.   In response to my statement that I was from Save The Great South Bay, he immediately cited that only 7% of the nitrogen in the bay was from fertilizer, and the rest was from cesspools and septic tanks.   This was a predictable deflection — ‘we are not the problem.’

I quickly noted to him that there was a referendum coming up January 22nd in Great River, in Babylon around Carll’s River, and in Mastic.  Citizens living in some 7000 designated households were being asked to approve $388 million in federal funds for sewering.   If we are spending that kind of money on just 7000 homes for sewering to reduce nitrogen, then sewering the whole South Shore would have to run into several billion dollars.  If wastewater is 70% of the problem, and fertilizers are but 7%, or 1/10th the problem, 1/10th of several billion is still several hundred million, all for the goal of having a green lawn, which as noted absolutely does not require nitrogen-based fertilizers.   My question:  “Why are we spending billions to take nitrogen out of the water, while allowing hundreds of millions of dollars of nitrogen to go back in via lawn fertilizers?”

As for my saying that natural lawns, i.e. “Bay Friendly Yards” were inherently more beautiful, I was told that was just an opinion.  Mimicking untouched nature, a standard Frederick Olmstead, architect of Central Park would approve of, deserves some consideration, however, when compared to the sterile industrial horror of the modern suburban lawn.   Please download our  E-Book “The Bay Friendly Yard” from our home page.   Long Island’s future environmentally is in its past, in bringing back what once was, through native plantings that don’t need fertilizers, pesticides or water.

When I further opined that the typical suburban lawn was about as permeable as concrete, and therefore contributed to storm runoff.   I was told I was flat out wrong.  That they were the scientists.   However, there is ample science to back up my claim, starting here:

The Effect of Urban Soil Compaction On Infiltration Rate

Later after the conference call, one member of the committee, citing a study done in 1994 on phosphorus content done in Minnesota, offered this gem:

“A few members of the LINAP seemed to be under the impression that lawns are bad for the environment and nothing can be further from the truth.

Attached is a copy of The Role of Turfgrasses in Environmental Protection and Their Benefits to Humans which was published in 1994 in the Journal of Environmental Quality by James B. Beard, PhD and Robert L. Green, PhD.”

By this logic, I suppose we should put down more fertilizer.   We’d all be better off.

The big picture is this — we are in an environmental crisis of grand proportions.  All our bays are dying because of excess nitrogen and the massive algal blooms they cause.  Our drinking water is under threat as well.  We are spending many billions on the problem.   Yet all we are seeing from LINAP when it comes to proposed fertilizer recommendations are guidelines that are unenforceable, where compliance is nigh impossible, and which are of dubious efficacy, based on laws put on the books in other states that hardly have the soil, population density, and poor infrastructure Long Island has, that don’t use nearly the same amount of fertilizers that suburban Long Islanders do.

This is “Kobuki Law.”:  It makes all the gestures of taking action, yet is but an empty shadow play.   If Long Island is to save itself, we need to be leaders, and take bold steps to move away from what got us into this mess in the first place.   Sadly, it seems we are just going through the motions.

 

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