For those with trees in their yard (or in some cases, for those who have neighbors with trees) falling leaves is an inevitable part of the autumn season. Did you know that improperly disposing of those leaves hurts water quality, and, in some cases, might even be against the law?
If you live near a lake, river or another body of water, for example, you may wonder why you can’t just take those leaves or grass clippings and dump in the water. After all, it’s organic, so what could it hurt, right? Wrong. The negative impact adds excess nutrient levels in the water that can fuel additional growth of algae, harming water quality and potentially killing fish and other aquatic life.
Dumping those materials into water is also illegal. The Texas Health and Safety Code’s Litter Abatement Act states that dumping leaves, yard trimmings or other items into water is a crime. The type of materials dumped – and the amount – determine the severity of the punishment, but even small amounts disposed of improperly harms the environment and is a violation of the law.
Kyle Lewis, a Lake Ranger for the Brazos River Authority at Lake Granbury, is one of the officers who investigate environmental crimes.
“We always have a problem with people using their leaf blowers or dumping leaves, lawn clippings, limbs and debris in the water,” Lewis said. “We can’t control what Mother Nature puts in the water, but we don’t have to make things worse by having people put things in the water.”
As leaves and other yard waste deteriorate in the water, water quality is diminished.
“It degrades water quality by pulling oxygen out of the water, and this also puts fish and other wildlife under stress and is harmful to the environment,” Lewis said.
Dumping leaves and other materials in the water is illegal, and Lewis said people doing this can be issued citations with a fine of up to $500.
There are things you can do with yard waste that can benefit your yard while avoiding the problems created by illegal disposal.
Mulching or composting are the best ways to dispose of the leaves. Mulching the leaves with a lawnmower helps to create natural fertilizer for your lawn. Leaving the leaves on your lawn in the form of mulch shouldn’t smother the lawn like a thicker layer of leaves would, but it will help reduce water evaporation from the soil, slow down weed growth, moderate the soil temperature and help prevent erosion and soil compaction. Leaves that are shredded through the mulching process, such as using a lawnmower, will decompose more quickly and will likely stay in place better than leaves that have not been mulched or composted.
Raking the leaves and moving them to a compost pile will allow them to turn into a rich source of nutrients that can later be spread on the lawn or garden. Leaves that decompose in compost bins or piles create rich nutrients that can be placed in vegetable gardens, flowerbeds and around trees and shrubs.
The AgriLife Extension Service recommends applying a 3 to 6-inch layer of shredded leaves around the base of trees and shrubs. In annual and perennial flower beds, a 2 to 3-inch mulch is considered ideal. You can place a thick layer of mulched leaves between rows of plants that will create a layer of nutrients and provide an all-weather walkway that will allow better access to your garden when it is wet. Mulches also help nourish new landscapes and improve their chance of survival.
If you can’t mulch or compost your leaves and yard waste, another option is to bag them and leave them at the curb for your local solid waste department to collect. Some communities offer a special collection of these items that are separate from regular trash collection, so contact your local solid waste department to see what options might be available in your area.
More information on leaf disposal, including specifics on composting, can be found here.