ST. PETERSBURG — If you have nitrogen-based fertilizer in your garage, you might want to use it now. On Thursday, St. Petersburg's City Council is likely to pass an ordinance making its use illegal between June and September.
St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse said banning nitrogen-based fertilizer has "really been working its way up the west coast of Florida since the really bad Red Tide."
During the summer rain season, nitrogen placed on lawns runs off into natural water systems. Although it's uncertain whether high levels of nitrogen can actually cause Red Tide, Nurse says the element does "exacerbate it considerably."
Nanette O'Hara, outreach coordinator at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, said nitrogen causes other algae blooms and leads to fish die-offs. Nitrogen is the most common pollutant in Tampa Bay, she said, and 20 percent of that nitrogen comes from runoff from residential areas.
She said that getting many individual households to change their habits isn't an easy thing to do, but the other major contributors to the problem, like wastewater treatment plants, have already been cracked down on.
Nurse was confident that the proposal would pass, but regardless, Pinellas County will likely pass a similar ban by late April.
Nitrogen-based fertilizers do have their advantages. "It is cheap, and it is what we're used to," Nurse said. He said he expects it to take several seasons before the cost of fertilizer will return to what it is now.
The ban would go into effect on June 1 and run through Sept. 30. Although stores and lawn companies will not be able to sell nitrogen-based fertilizer starting on that date, the ban will be essentially voluntary for the people who actually use the fertilizer. Nurse explained that while it's feasible to enforce the new rule on vendors, there are simply too many private users to police them all.
Nurse said the council hopes that an educational campaign and cutting off the supply is enough to do the trick. He said St. Petersburg residents will see improvements most distinctly in the area's lakes, and that the ordinance should save money in the long run.
"When we do this to our lakes, we eventually have to clean them up," Nurse said. He said the city has spent about $20 million on cleaning lakes in the past three years.
Glenn Duncan, owner of Glenn R. Duncan Landscape Maintenance Inc., has been looking after St. Petersburg lawns since 1972, and he's all for the summer ban. "I don't see any problems with it, only benefits," he said.
He said that during the summer, plants get an extra dose of nitrogen from lightning. Lightning drives nitrogen fixation, which changes the element from its unusable form in the air to something plants can absorb.
Duncan said nitrogen drives "top growth," the growth of leaves and grass stalks. He recommends fertilizing with nitrogen in the spring and fall, but in the summer, too much of the element just creates a need for more frequent mowing and more pesticides.
He said he'll have to change what his business provides, but he doesn't anticipate any difficulty, because he expects comparable alternatives to be easily accessible.
Duncan acknowledged that not everyone in the lawn care business feels as positively about the ban as he does.
"This is a paradigm shift, and people don't like it," he said. However, he said that the same could be said about the movement to use seat belts.
He said he hopes St. Petersburg residents will do their part to make the ban work. "People are going to do what they're going to do, but education has to help and so will changing the law, as long as it's based on science and not political correctness," he said.