Next week, May 8-12, is fertilizer awareness week. But instead of celebrating a significant local community step for water quality, we’re left shaking our heads. Without public testimony and hearings, lawmakers quietly inserted a measure into the state’s 2023-24 budget that kowtows to industry. This measure, slipped in at the 11th hour and only days before the 2023 State legislative session ends, prohibits local governments from “adopting or amending a fertilizer management ordinance” that would limit fertilizer application. This preemption of local rules harms local communities, economies, and ecosystems. The only benefactors: certain phosphate and fertilizer industries. At best, this move is undemocratic. It’s also part of a larger scheme to strip local governments of their rights under home rule charter to set environmental regulation above a state floor.
We know how much our neighbors and communities take pride in their beautiful lawns and gardens, creating the lush, subtropical panorama that South Florida is famous for. However, given our proximity to sensitive waters like Biscayne Bay, fertilizer application meant to nourish our landscapes must be done with special care. If not applied correctly, the nutrients found in fertilizers can run off into local waterways when it rains, eventually making their way to the Bay. Nutrients are not bad in and of themselves, but too much of a good thing throws a system out of balance. Excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen contribute to toxic algae blooms, cause seagrass die-offs, and deprive the water of the critical oxygen needed to sustain marine life. Remember the 2020 fish kill? The science behind the contribution of nutrients to these outcomes is well-established.
With tremendous algae blooms, seagrass disappearing, and manatees starving as a result, communities are looking for answers to these crises. One easy valve where we can shut off excess pollution into our waterways is to limit fertilizer use through simple behavior change. Increasingly, local governments are enacting ordinances to regulate fertilizer application to a more stringent standard---that is--more stringent than what the state set in its model fertilizer ordinance, which sets a minimum bar.
Miami Waterkeeper helped pass an important, county-wide fertilizer ordinance in 2021. It was broadly supported by Miami-Dade’s Mayor, Commissioners, and municipalities. This fertilizer ordinance is the strongest of such in the state while also providing common-sense rules that protect the environment and save people money: it prohibits the use of fertilizer during the rainy season from May 15 to October 31, when heavy downpours wash fertilizer off lawns and down our stormwater systems before plants can use it. Instead, it washes into the Bay, where it builds up, and fuels algae blooms, seagrass die-off, and fish kills. Not only is fertilizing during the summer months funneling money almost literally down the drain, it is unnecessarily hurting our waterways.
But limiting fertilizer use has irked at least one fertilizer company with a lobbyist, and they are out to protect their special interests. Late last weekend, Tallahassee lawmakers inserted language into the state’s 2023-24 General Appropriations Act implementing bill to prevent local government from enacting future local fertilizer regulations that would include these key summer fertilizer blackout periods. There was no legislative vote or public comment on this language. Ultimately, stints like these seek to upend the balance of power between the state and local governments, and they obviate the work of local communities in protecting their own watersheds.
Miami-Dade County’s strong fertilizer ordinance should be replicated in other locations. Instead, the legislature signaled a step backward in caring for our watersheds. While they say it’s only a year-long preemption, waterways around the state are tipping dangerously beyond the point of no return, and we must act now to save them. The sneaky ban on local fertilizer ordinances befouls both our waterways and the public trust in our democratic process. You can contact your local state elected officials and let them know that you want local governments to keep their power to govern water quality rules. And anyone can take the common sense approach and decline to waste their money simply by just not spreading fertilizer on their lawns between May 15 through October 31.