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Hillsborough limits summer fertilizer use

The new ordinance follows a summer of fish kills in Tampa Bay and elsewhere.
Workers clean up dead fish in a  canal in Apollo Beach during Red Tide-triggered fish kills around Tampa Bay this summer. Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Commission approved a new limit on landscape fertilizers during the rainy season. Commissioner Mariella Smith first proposed the ordinance at the height of the fish kills.
Workers clean up dead fish in a canal in Apollo Beach during Red Tide-triggered fish kills around Tampa Bay this summer. Wednesday, the Hillsborough County Commission approved a new limit on landscape fertilizers during the rainy season. Commissioner Mariella Smith first proposed the ordinance at the height of the fish kills. [ Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission ]
Published Nov. 17
Updated Nov. 17

TAMPA – Hillsborough County wants to reduce fish-killing pollution in Tampa Bay.

Wednesday, commissioners unanimously approved an ordinance limiting fertilizer use during Florida’s rainy season. It prohibits application of landscape fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus from June 1 to Sept. 30 each year.

The goal is to reduce Red Tide and other nutrient-triggered toxic algae blooms that result in fish kills and other ecological damage. Commissioner Mariella Smith first proposed the ordinance after dead fish swamped Apollo Beach canals and other county locations over the summer.

Hillsborough’s ordinance is similar to rules followed by Tampa, Pinellas and 14 other counties in the state. The Hillsborough ordinance does not ban fertilizer sales. Agricultural land is exempt.

“It is much cheaper, easier and more effective to prevent pollution from entering the bay than it is to clean up the bay after the damage has been done,” Smith said Wednesday.

Related: Commissioner seeks fertilizer ban

Environmental groups and some elected officials blame the summer Red Tide bloom on a decision made by the state in April. That’s when it allowed 215 million gallons of polluted water from Piney Point, an old Manatee County fertilizer plant, to be released into Tampa Bay. By mid-July, Hillsborough County had retrieved 4,200 pounds of dead fish from shorelines and residential canals, primarily in Apollo Beach and Ruskin.

Related: Tampa Bay loses 6,350 acres of seagrass

Smith noted the Southwest Florida Water Management District reported Tampa Bay had seen a 16 percent decline in seagrass, or more than 6,350 acres, over two years ending in 2020. Likewise, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported more than 1,000 manatee deaths this year. Causes of death include starvation from seagrass loss.

Eleven years ago, the Hillsborough commission, sitting as the Environmental Protection Commission, overruled its own staff and decided not to ban summertime use of landscape fertilizers.

Instead, the board put a focus on education, but it did prohibit fertilizer use within 10 feet of surface water. The rule banned application of fertilizers when it was raining, or the county was under a flood or hurricane watch or warning or “within 36 hours prior to a rain event greater than or equal to 2 inches in a 24-hour period is likely.”

Now, the fertilizers can’t be applied during the rainy season. County code enforcement officers are expected to handle enforcement. Violations can bring fines of up to $500.

Smith said the county may have benefitted from being able to see the effectiveness of the city of Tampa’s summer fertilizer ban.

“We can see some of the fears that were brought forward before have not come to pass,” she said. “Nobody’s lawn is going brown.”