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Hernando looks at fertilizer limits to clean up Weeki Wachee spring system

Weeki Wachee Springs is featured in this month’s issue of National Geographic. But its mention is not because of the tourist attraction and mermaids but accompanies a story about how the overuse of nitrogen fertilizers is degrading the environment across the globe.
Published Apr. 30, 2013

BROOKSVILLE — Swimming across a page of the May issue of National Geographic is a Weeki Wachee mermaid in a bright pink swimsuit.

Great public relations for Hernando County's premier attraction, right?

Wrong.

It's an illustration for a story about how the over-use of nitrogen fertilizers are degrading the environment across the globe.

"When the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida made its debut in 1947, the bathing beauties swam among waving fronds of eelgrass,'' reads the caption. "Today algae fed by nitrogen fertilizer from farms and lawns crowd out many of the springs' native plants.''

Next week, the County Commission will get a chance to talk about what it can do to halt the decline of their signature spring system.

If proposed legislation winding its way through the final days of the session in Tallahassee doesn't tie commissioners' hands, they can establish a fertilizer ordinance to limit the use of the major contributor to nutrient pollution in the spring.

Officials have known for some time that they would have to create such an ordinance. It's the substitute mandate for another mandate that the county opted out of — a septic tank inspection program required for counties with first-magnitude springs such as the Weeki Wachee.

After the commission voted not to require these inspections last May, it formed a working group of representatives of various government agencies.

This group's report noted that springs systems are adapted to a very low level of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Even a small increase can spark algae growth.

Because of the levels of nutrients present in the Weeki Wachee system, the state has termed the system an "impaired water body.'' Most of the nitrogen found in the system comes from inorganic fertilizer. Septic tanks are a secondary source, staff told commissioners.

Last week, county planner Patricia McNeese, gave the commission an update on the fertilizer ordinance idea and sought their guidance. Because it was one complex item on a very busy agenda, commissioners decided to discuss the idea again on Tuesday.

Such an ordinance could allow the county to set aside times of the year when fertilizer cannot be applied. It could eliminate fertilizing within a given distance from a water body and prevent homeowners from allowing yard clippings and leaves from washing into water bodies.

State law requires all commercial applicators to be certified by January 2014. McNeese told commissioners that training is under way for local applicators.

While the county doesn't have a fertilizer ordinance, there are other less sweeping safeguards in other county laws.

A groundwater protection ordinance restricts fertilizer-heavy uses such as golf courses near county wellheads, she said. Another ordinance encourages leaving natural vegetation near rivers to filter runoff that is sometimes loaded with fertilizer.

County staff is carefully monitoring the progress of a bill in the Legislature, HB 999, which would not allow new fertilizer ordinances stricter than a model ordinance from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The measure has already cleared the House of Representatives.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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