Careful with that fertilizer, you may be doing more harm than good

Careful with that fertilizer, you may be doing more harm than good


Fertilizing the lawn helps bring new life to a homeowner’s yard or garden, but if a resident isn’t careful, it can also cause hazards to the water we use to sustain us.

In-between the April showers and before the dreaded Texas summer heat hits, residents are fertilizing their lawn. After all, those newly planted flowers and the front yard needs light, moisture and nutrients to grow and flourish.

As fertilizer is used, be cautious as the act of spreading the nutrient can either increase or reduce the potential for pollution.

Heavy rains, or excessive water, can wash the fertilizer containing nitrogen and phosphorus into nearby waters or into ground waters. Nutrient pollution is one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The pollution has impacted streams, rivers, lakes and coastal waters for decades, resulting in environmental and human health issues, according to the EPA.

So where’s the harm?

The nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer can actually cause algae to grow faster than the ecosystems can handle, according to the EPA. Too much algae and suddenly the water quality and habits are affected as oxygen begins to decrease, harming fish and other aquatic life.

A large enough impact can cause an algal bloom, which has the potential to kill large numbers of fish.

Algal blooms can create a variety of problems, said Tiffany Morgan, BRA environmental and compliance manager.

“The fish kill is exactly what it sounds like - fish belly up and float to the surface and it’s smelly, unsightly and causes alarm,” Morgan said.

They also can get out of control and clog waterways, cover the water with scum and change its color, she said.

There’s even the potential for harm to people. Some algal blooms produce elevated toxins and bacterial growth that can make people sick, according to the EPA.

The plants, however, are the first to absorb any excess fertilization, Morgan said.

Algal blooms can create “dead zones,” or areas of cripplingly low oxygen, which can last from a few hours, to a few years, according to Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Severe algal growth can also block the sun and its rays from reaching underwater plants needing that light to survive.

The key to prevention is education, Morgan said. By the time a fish kill occurs, it is typically too late to do anything, she said. That’s not to say people should quit using fertilizers, she said. The important part is to follow the manufactures recommendations for application, she said.

“Plants aren’t like people,” she said. “They’re not going to take in more than what they need.”

Many people would rather point their finger at a farmer as the ones in need of better practices, Morgan said.

“The reality is, farming education and education practices have really come a long way,” she said. “Most of them have fairly advanced soil testing practices, so they’re not overpaying for their fertilizers.”

As the population continues to expand, so does the use of nutrient pollution. Pollution has many faces and nutrient pollution has several sources, including lawn fertilizers, municipal sewage, and livestock waste.

More than 21,000 cases of serious waterborne infections were reported between 1970 and 1990 each year because of harmful algal blooms along the coast of the Black Sea, according to the Ocean Health Index.

Small acts can lead to big changes as we work together to protect the water resources in the Brazos River basin.

Here are some handy tips from the EPA on using fertilizers to help reduce your pollution impact to our waters.

  • Apply fertilizers only when necessary and at the recommended amount.
  • Do not apply fertilizer before windy or rainy days.
  • Avoid applying fertilizer close to waterways.
  • Do not overwater lawns and garden; use a soaker hose, a porous hose that releases water directly to the ground, which can reduce overwatering that carries away fertilizers that would otherwise enrich lawns and gardens.
  • Fill fertilizer spreaders on a hard surface so that any spills can be easily cleaned.
  • Properly store unused fertilizers and properly dispose of empty containers.
  • Plant native plants, shrubs and trees which reduces the amount of fertilizer needed.

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