A pollution warning sign along the Caloosahatchee River (Pic by Florida Water Coalition)

A national environmental group has sent state Reps. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, a letter urging them to put a stop to a controversial Florida fertilizer bill.

Though the Senate version of the bill died in committee this week, the House version is still alive, but faces tough odds. It was TPed this morning during a meeting of the State Affairs Committee (for which McKeel acts as chair, and Mayfield acts as vice chair).

According to a letter sent by Ocean River Institute President Rob Moir, the bill would “strip counties of their rights to responsible environmental stewardship” and would prove “a major setback for county governments that have enacted ordinances to reduce summer stormwater runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus into waterways.”

So why go to so much trouble to oppose a bill that has already been killed by the Senate? According to Moir, the Ocean River Institute sent it so that “when a new bill is introduced next year, decision-makers will better understand the risks of siding with industrial lobbyists instead of the people when it comes to fertilizing, nitrogen pollution, and green lawns.”

Many environmentalists and state counties have criticized the bill because it would preempt local government control over lawn fertilizer application during the summer rainy months. In many counties, fertilizer use is banned during those months, but the bill would likely change that — allowing those with “limited certifications” to ignore local rules, and apply as they see fit.

Nitrogen, which is found in commercial fertilizers, is one of Florida’s worst ecosystem pollutants. Once rain washes the fertilizer off the grass and into a waterway, it can cause or exacerbate algae blooms — which cut off oxygen to other species and often lead to fish kills. Those blooms can be especially bad during the summer months, as algae thrives in warm water.

“These blooms are extremely threatening to water systems because they deplete dissolved oxygen, causing marine wildlife to suffer and become more vulnerable to toxins and disease,” writes the Institute. “Local governments are enacting responsible ordinances that address the application of fertilizers to lawns. Unlike agricultural businesses and golf courses, Florida lawns are getting five times the necessary fertilizer application. This excess is also a waste of time, money and resources for lawn owners.”

Many environmentalists, like Moir, believe that local ordinances are more strict than statewide regulations, which he calls “woefully inadequate.”

Critics argue that a set of water pollution rules drafted by the state, which are likely to be implemented soon, have been “watered down” by industry and agricultural interests. In essence, says Moir, the local rules are superior, due to their specificity.

“Setting fertilizing bans is an important right of local government,” he writes. “Let them declare lawn fertilizer vacations during the hot summer months when rains are heaviest. Local government should set the summer dates for when their people need not waste their time and resources to apply fertilizers. People should be permitted to take a break from applying fertilizers when it is doing the most harm to the environment and the least good for their lawns.”

In closing his letter, Moir asks that the state reps “put a stop to big government messing with local stewardship.” The letter was sent along with the personal comments of more than 1,500 concerned individuals.

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