What's polluting the Chesapeake Bay? Your damn lawn fertilizer

Credit: Associated Press

Listen up, all you Hank Hills out there: If you want to put down loads of fertilizer to obtain the lush lawn of your dreams, know that there will be consequences.

So says a new report from a Maryland conservation group that blames turf food for the Chesapeake Bay’s “lethal overdose of pollution — a toxic stew of human-made chemicals and some natural substances produced far in excess of nature’s balance.”

The report, by the non-profit Environment Maryland Research & Policy Center, is a call to jihad against the state loophole that allows big lawn-care companies to fertilize with relative impunity. It identifies turf grass as the biggest single crop in Maryland, consuming more than double the 460,000 acres that the second-biggest crop, corn, took up in 2009.

Whereas by law farmers have to prepare nutrient-management plans, the lawn companies aren’t fettered with such regulations. In some cases, they don’t test the ground to see if more fertilizer is even needed. Maryland landowners use at least 86 million pounds of nitrogen fertilizer each year on lawns. Yet the state collected only one measly fine of $250 in 2009 for the overuse of lawn fertilizers (and again just one fine in 2010).

So why are fertilizers so scary, including organic varieties?

Their two key nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, seep into the groundwater or join the runoff from rainstorms and wind up in the Bay. There, the nutrients effect a two-stage cycle of destruction: They feed massive algae blooms that prevent sunlight from reaching underwater grass beds, killing them. Then the algae dies and is consumed by hungry bacteria that sucks oxygen from the water.

This process creates vast “dead zones” that suffocate any creature unfortunate enough to enter. Thanks to nutrient pollution, about 80 percent of the Bay and its tributaries has little or no oxygen. That’s not just bad for fish and blue crabs. The local economy suffers too, as watermen leave to seek job opportunities elsewhere.

It’s not a problem likely to go away by itself. Landowners determined to fertilize their lawns are getting more numerous as residential development expands through Maryland. Last year, an estimated 6.1 million “turf grass farmers” were operating in the Bay watershed, spending almost $5 billion on perfecting the appearances of lawns, golf courses, parks and playing fields.

The report makes several recommendations, such as rewriting land-management laws and banning the use of phosphorus-spiked fertilizer, as New York, New Jersey and other states have already done. You can read the full document here. But before you do, check out these sediment and nutrient-pollution plumes that were washed into a Bay tributary after rain this March. The image comes from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ Eyes on the Bay website.