Vineyard group would tailor and strengthen new state regs on fertilizer use

As shown in this 2010 aerial photo, the north end of Sengekontacket Pond is ringed by green lawns and a golf course. — Photo courtesy of Google Earth

In August 2012, Massachusetts lawmakers enacted legislation designed to regulate fertilizer use across the state to protect water quality and meet federal Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Although one of the goals of the legislation is standardization, it includes an exemption for the Cape and the Islands that allows these communities to implement more restrictive regulations if it is done before the state regulations take effect.

The state Department of Agricultural Resources is expected to introduce new regulations governing and standardizing the use of fertilizers in the state at the beginning of the new year, according to William Veno, senior planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

A group composed of members of the Island towns’ boards of health and others, including Mr. Veno, landscapers, and golf course personnel have been meeting on Tuesday mornings at the MVC office for several months to discuss the issues involved in crafting Island-wide regulations.

The group will hold a public hearing seeking public input on potential Island fertilizer regulations some time in mid-November.

Mr. Veno said he expects the state regulations to restrict the use of fertilizers to prevent phosphorus runoff into rivers and other water bodies. Phosphorus is a major fresh water pollutant. He said it appears the use of nitrogen, a major pollutant of saltwater estuaries, will not be addressed in the state law. The local regulations could include more stringent requirements for the local use of both phosphorus and nitrogen.

The group has reviewed fertilizer regulations enacted by the Nantucket board of health as well as those developed in Falmouth, Orleans, in parts of Virginia and Maryland around Chesapeake Bay, and on Sanibel Island in Florida.

The Nantucket Board of Health, after a two-year study, adopted regulations on January 1 to control the use of nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizers. Richard Ray, director of the Nantucket health department, said that the primary focus of their regulatory effort is education. “It is extremely difficult to determine how much fertilizer has been used and when it was used,” he said. “We realized that public education is our most important tool.”

Budgetary issues have stalled the implementation of the education and licensing program, according to Mr. Ray, but even without that delay he said he thinks people are paying attention to the goals and requirements of the new rules. “It will be several years before the changes in fertilizer use has a noticeable effect,” he said.

The Nantucket regulations limit the quantity and frequency of specific types of fertilizer application with stricter guidelines closer to bodies of water. Mr. Ray said commercial landscapers will be required to attend a minimum number of courses and pay an annual $100 license fee. The classes will be open to homeowners. A 65-page set of best management practices for the industry is designed to address nutrient loading and water quality issues for the industry as well as homeowners.

“It is my understanding that the new state regulations are based at least in part on what we have done here,” Mr. Ray said. “The issue is the proper use of fertilizers.” He said that some manufacturers are voluntarily moving away from using as much phosphorus and nitrogen in their lawn fertilizer products, particularly in sensitive areas.

The Nantucket program has met no resistance from local homeowners or landscape professionals, according to Mr. Ray. “When you fly off the island and see the iridescent green lawns next to iridescent green ponds, it’s obvious something needs to be done.”

The Vineyard group expects to complete its work before the end of the year and will submit its proposal to the town boards of health for approval. Mr. Veno said that it is possible that the state will amend the deadline postponing the implementation of the state regulations for a year.

Less is more

If a little fertilizer helps a lawn turn green, then a lot of fertilizer will make it turn even greener. “That seems to be the prevailing theory for many homeowners who insist on having bright green lawns,” according to Chuck Wiley, owner of Vineyard Gardens in West Tisbury.

“But there is a very real risk of using too much fertilizer and it can end up polluting our waters,” he said. “I advise my clients to limit their use of fertilizers, particularly nitrogen-heavy fertilizers that can end up feeding the pollution in our water, even if it means not having as bright a lawn as they might wish.”

Mr. Wiley said there are two ways fertilizer ends up in the water. One, through runoff, which can happen when there is rain after an application of fertilizer and two, through leaching which is the result of applying more fertilizer than the lawn can use.

“There is only so much a lawn can absorb and only so much that it needs for healthy growth,” he said. “Put too much on and the excess ends up in our water.”

Mr. Wiley said he does his best to educate customers who insist on too much fertilizer or fertilizers with more nitrogen and phosphorus than their lawn requires, even at the risk of losing business when clients insist on have bright green lawns.

A diver, Mr. Wiley harvests shellfish and has come face to face with the results of pollution. “I have seen an increase in the growth of algae blooms in local waterways,” he said, “and I believe it is due to fertilizer use.”