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Bill to Restrict Use of Lawn Fertilizers in New Jersey

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New Jersey, which has long described itself as the "Garden State," is killing itself with lawn fertilizers. Or at least, the fertilizers are killing its freshwater lakes and even Barnegat Bay. That's the conclusion of members of the state legislature, who have sponsored a bill (A2290), which, if passed into law, would severely restrict the fertilization of lawns in this quintessentially suburban state.

What prompted the concern in the environmental decline in Barnegat Bay, a 30-mile estuary once famous for its fisheries. In recent years, however, a flood of unnatural nutrients, in particular nitrates and phosphates, have caused a eutrophication of this largely enclosed body of water. This has promoted algal blooms that rob the water of the oxygen that the marine wildlife needs to thrive. By upsetting the balance of this habitat, the excess nutrients have also contributed to a dramatic retreat of the once-vast eel grass beds in Barnegat Bay. The eelgrass serves as a nursery for a variety of wildlife, including fish and shellfish, and as they shrink, so does the biodiversity and biological fertility of the bay.

Lawn fertilizers, washed into streams, rivers, and lakes by storm runoff, are known to be a major source of both phosphate and nitrate pollution, though the precise share of its contribution has been a subject of debate. However, a study published last year in the journal Lake and Reservoir Management revealed that following a restriction on lawn fertilization by the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, phosphate levels in the adjoining Huron River dropped by 28 percent.

Most soils in New Jersey, already contain enough phosphorus for healthy lawn growth, and the amount of nitrogen applied to lawns by homeowners typically is far more than the turf requires. Still, the lawn industry, fearing a blow to sales, is vigorously resisting the legislature's proposed restrictions.

"For that standard to be met, every product on the market would need to change," explained Chris Wible, director of environmental stewardship for Scotts Miracle-Gro Company to a staff writer for the online news source NorthJersey.com. Some homeowners, worried about the impact less-green lawns might have on their real estate values, are also protesting.

The irony is that the seeds of a compromise that could satisfy everyone except the marketers are, quite literally, already in place. Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, has for years been experimenting with lawn grasses that flourish with minimal fertilization. University turf breeders have succeeded in developing a number of new strains of fine fescues (species of grasses long used in turf grass mixes) that not only provide green with far less feeding, they also require far less mowing (a once-a-month cut keeps the improved fine fescues looking trim) and no irrigation during the average New Jersey summer. What's more, these grasses are generally available to retail customers from online seed companies. Converting an existing lawn from fertilizer-greedy conventional turfs to these newer, greener grasses can be accomplished at relatively little expense in a matter of weeks, using tools and techniques familiar to every lawn care contractor.

Homeowners and greenskeepers interested in these greener grasses will find information on the Lawn Reform Coalition website, or through Rutgers University free extension publications.

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