Water protectors call for ban on popular fertilizers
By Jeff Alexander
Published March 24, 2006
Muskegon County homeowners who demand lush green lawns may soon be required to use different fertilizers to nurture their grass.
A coalition of local officials and environmental advocates unveiled a proposal Thursday to ban the sale and use of phosphorous-based fertilizers countywide.
Farmers would be exempt from the ban -- which would be the first countywide phosphorous ban in Michigan -- because their use of the compound is regulated by the state.
Experts said phosphorous concentrations in soils in many parts of the county are "off the charts." The result: phosphorous is draining off residential lawns, farms and golf courses when it rains and entering waterways, fueling rampant weed growth and the proliferation of toxic algae that can harm humans, fish and wildlife.
"There are days when I'm afraid to canoe on Mona Lake because the algae blooms are so thick I'm afraid they might make me sick," said John McGarry, who lives along Mona Lake and is on the board of the Mona Lake Watershed Council.
The Mona Lake Watershed Council came up with the idea of banning phosphorous-based fertilizers after years of battling thick aquatic weeds. Scientists recently found toxic algae in Mona, Muskegon and Bear lakes, a problem caused in part by excess phosphorous in the water.
Excessive phosphorous concentrations are causing the premature aging of many Michigan lakes, including Muskegon, Mona, Bear and Spring lakes, said Alan Steinman, director of Grand Valley State University's Water Resources Institute in Muskegon.
Nitrogen and potassium are two other common fertilizers, but those compounds do not pose as great a threat to surface water quality, experts said. Phosphorous provides the energy that makes plants grow, Alan Steinman said.
The proposed phosphorous fertilizer ban is modeled after a similar ordinance in Dane County, Wis. Fertilizer producers challenged the Dane County ordinance in federal court, but the county prevailed and the ban is in place today.
Minnesota banned the sale and use of phosphorous fertilizers statewide in 2004.
Spring Lake Township, the village of Spring Lake and the city of Ferrysburg recently banned the use of phosphorous-based fertilizers in those communities. Those actions were prompted by elevated phosphorous concentrations and persistent algae blooms in Spring Lake, which occasionally turn the lake the color of pea soup.
"We're not looking to ban fertilizing; we're looking to ban one ingredient that's causing the most problems in our lakes," said Annoesjka Steinman, director of the Mona Lake Watershed Council and a Norton Shores City Council member.
Communities in the Muskegon metropolitan area are facing a May 1 federal deadline to adopt a plan to reduce nonpoint source pollution, contaminants from diffuse sources, entering area lakes and streams. A committee working on that plan decided that banning phosphorous-based lawn fertilizers was the quickest way to reduce phosphorous concentrations in local lakes, Laketon Township Supervisor Roland Crummel said.
Only two of 39 local officials at Thursday's meeting expressed reservations about the proposed ban. Fruitport Township Supervisor Ron Cooper and Muskegon County Commissioner Marvin Engle questioned how the ban would be enforced and whether area residents would view the measure as overly restrictive.
Supporters said banning the sale of phosphorous fertilizers would dramatically reduce the use of the compound locally. They acknowledged that the ban probably would not completely end the use of phosphorous fertilizers on lawns in the county.
"It wouldn't cost anything to do this. The easiest way to police it is to check on stores that sell fertilizers," Annoesjka Steinman said. "We don't have any intention of asking the county, the cities or the townships to go and look at people's lawns."
One of Michigan's largest lawn care companies, Tru-Green ChemLawn, stopped using phosphorous-based fertilizers on established lawns several years ago. The soil beneath most lawns in Michigan is "saturated" with the compound, said Ben Hamza, Michigan regional technical manager for Tru-Green ChemLawn.
There are "astronomical amounts of phosphorous in the soils" in Muskegon County, Hamza told the gathering of local officials at GVSU's Water Resources Institute. "It's incredible that when we have phosphorous levels of 250 pounds per acre we still see phosphorous being applied."
In most of Michigan, Hamza said, phosphorous is needed only when planting new lawns. Few existing lawns need more phosphorous, he said.
The only way to know if a lawn or garden needs phosphorous is to test the soil, Hamza said. The Muskegon County Cooperative Extension Service tests soils for $12.
Muskegon County Commissioner Robert Scolnik said he will take the proposed phosphorous ban to county commissioners by June 1. Scolnik said he will propose enacting the ban in 2007, which would give local retailers time to sell their existing stock of phosphorous-based fertilizers.
"I don't see any reason not to do this," Scolnik said.