CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners signaled Tuesday that they want to ban the sale and use of fertilizer during the summer rainy season to curtail pollution from flowing into lakes, streams and other waterways.
"We don't want to put any of our businesses out of business, but water is the most precious resource this world has," Commissioner John Morroni said.
The commission may get a chance to officially vote on the fertilizer ordinance as early as next month.
Commissioner Susan Latvala, who called for the summer ban to be mandated statewide, pointed out that the county is already spending nearly $30 million trying to clean up pollution from fertilizer runoff. Then along comes another hard rain to wash more fertilizer into the water.
"We keep re-creating the problem that we're fixing," Latvala said.
She and other commissioners said banning the sale of fertilizer from June 1 to Sept. 30 is the most easily enforceable way to prevent pollution during the rainy season. County environmental manager Will Davis said it would affect fewer than 20 businesses in the unincorporated areas.
But industry representatives and scientists from the University of Florida both cautioned against taking such a step.
"No one has yet produced any science that shows that summer blackouts will lead to an improvement of water quality," said George Hochmuth of the university's Institute of Food and Agriculture Science, or IFAS. The industry and IFAS support regulating fertilizer use, but not a summertime ban.
However, the regulations that IFAS and the industry support say no one should apply fertilizer when the forecast promises more than 2 inches of rain, noted Davis. That would be "kind of hard to predict," he said. "It could happen on any summer day in this county."
This was not the first time commissioners discussed regulating fertilizer, and they made it plain they thought the staff should already have an ordinance drawn up. They said they were ready to proceed after hearing about the need for an ordinance — with a summer ban — from the government-funded Tampa Bay Estuary Program.
County Administrator Bob LaSala said he wanted to make sure the board wasn't surprised by the opposition from IFAS and the industry.
Tuesday's four-hour workshop drew a large crowd. More than 150 people filled the fifth-floor commission chamber and a nearby overflow room, as well as rows of folding chairs set up in the courthouse lobby, where the meeting played on closed-circuit televisions.
Proponents of the ban repeatedly brought up a story in Saturday's St. Petersburg Times that pointed out that the turf industry helps to pay IFAS' research bills.
In response to questions from Latvala, UF's Terril Nell said he did not know how much the industry paid IFAS, although a Times review of university documents found that it was more than half a million dollars in the past three years. Nell said that whatever the figure, it wasn't much compared with other sources. "I'd like to see more," Nell said of the industry funding. "I'd say that about anybody."
Both he and Hochmuth insisted that their only allegiance is to science.
"I want our children to look back and say, "You did the right thing. You didn't fall back on emotion,' '' Hochmuth said.
When there's a heavy rain, fertilizer washes downstream into the state's waterways, causing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that spurs algae blooms like the one this summer that stretched 14 miles across Tampa Bay. Such blooms can lead to fish kills and dead zones, and can produce toxins that cause infections and respiratory problems in humans.
Holly Greening of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program told commissioners that residential runoff accounts for 20 percent of the nitrogen now polluting the bay. Wastewater treatment plants put in just 8 percent, she said.
Nearly three-fourths of Pinellas County's creeks, lakes and other waterways are classified as "impaired" because of this kind of pollution, Davis said. Cleaning them up is expected to cost more than $29 million, he said.
The proposed ordinance exempts golf courses and farms, which two commissioners questioned. They also failed to agree on when the new rules ought to take effect. Latvala said she wants it to start before summer.
St. Petersburg and Gulfport have already passed their own fertilizer rules banning summer fertilizer sales, while Clearwater and Safety Harbor are considering following suit. Hillsborough County officials have discussed a fertilizer rule, but so far have taken no action.
Craig Pittman can be reached at (727) 893-8530 or email@example.com