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A controversial report says there isn't enough evidence proving fertilizer bans help water quality

Philippe Park
Carl Lisciandrello
Philippe Park is pictured in Safety Harbor. Florida lawmakers raised eyebrows last year when they ordered researchers to determine whether local ordinances that ban the use of fertilizers for part of the year are effective.

A Dunedin city commissioner and an activist at 1000 Friends of Florida share their take on fertilizer bans.

Florida lawmakers raised eyebrows last year when they ordered researchers to determine whether local ordinances that ban the use of fertilizers for part of the year are effective.

At the same time, legislators prohibited cities and counties from issuing new ordinances for 12 months.

But that didn’t impact ordinances already in place, like Pinellas County’s ban of nitrogen and phosphorous on landscapes between June and September.

Jeff Gow is a commissioner for the city of Dunedin, which he said has supported Pinellas' fertilizer ordinance since its inception in 2010.

He said lawmakers should speak with local officials and residents before making changes.

"Instead of them just making laws in Tallahassee, if they have concerns or ideas, reach out to us, ask us… We're the ones that are out there in the trenches every day talking to our residents," he said.

"So, that was the major emphasis on us reconfirming our dedication to supporting of the ban-- just kind of to make a statement that we think we're going in the right direction," he said.

Environmental advocates say the fertilizer bans protect local waterways from nutrients that feed algae blooms, but a report from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences says there is inconclusive evidence to support that.

Now, advocates worry legislators may try to further prohibit cities and counties from creating fertilizer ordinances.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke to Haley Busch with the advocacy organization 1000 Friends of Florida about it.

Can you please give us some background on this report that UF released on fertilizer bands? Like how did this come about?

So, in the final weeks, I'd say the last two weeks of the 2023 session in the appropriation bill language, that's the state budget, we saw a line item in the budget. This was alarming to us for a couple of reasons.

It did not receive an individual committee hearing where legislators could debate and discuss and ask questions about this policy change. And it was more than just a budget line item for a study. It was policy change, right, when you enact this preemption.

View the full report below:

And what were the results of this study?

I think everyone knew that this wasn't going to be, you know, scientists going out collecting water quality data on urban stormwater runoff. So, this was a literature review meaning that UF-IFAS looked at different previously published peer reviewed articles. I will note most, if not all of those articles, were University of Florida IFAS research-funded reports.

And so those studies were assessing different stormwater ordinances and the impacts on water quality, on turf grass. And the findings in that report did not indicate that fertilizer ordinances negatively impacted the health of turf grass, nor did the study come back and say fertilizer ordinances do not prevent water quality from decreasing in these areas, right?

So, it was in our interpretation kind of intentionally evasive and claiming overall, 'we need more study, we need to look at this further.'

Why is it important to note that the previous studies that was looked at to create this report that it came out of mostly UF-IFAS?

You'd like to see perhaps a more robust and diverse group of articles, right? University of Florida, it gets quite a bit of funding from our state legislature. And so this previous year IFAS received, I believe the line item was for [$250,000] for this study, last legislative session.

And so, while the appropriations request hasn't come out, that I'm aware of, we believe there will be an appropriations request for more money to conduct this fertilizer ordinance research. And so that's worth noting that this is a research institute, a state university system that relies upon funding and support and approval from our state legislature.

What are the implications of this report? How could it affect policy that then trickles down to people's lawns and then their surrounding water bodies?

I think a big intention here by our legislature is to cast doubt on what has been decades of research that has shown the effectiveness of fertilizer ordinances that are tailored to local governments and local regions, right, and the water bodies in that region. So already, just by introducing the study, and requiring the study and requiring a moratorium, it's casting doubt on decades of research.

It leaves room for legislators to cast doubt and kind of cherry pick, you know, different points: 'Oh, well, you know, some of your articles, some of your research shows that a summer ban is more effective in the summer, rainy months.' But we've also heard and seen that 'no, actually a winter ban or you know, something focusing on the winter months is actually more effective.'

It's also a preemption or Home Rule issue as well. Local leaders and local policymakers and the scientists who are tasked with protecting their springs or their rivers of their region, they know best for their local hydrology, right? They know the way the land and water flows, the stormwater runoff path.

And so, the preemptive nature of this saying that, 'well, whatever we decide at the state level, it's going to work for all of the 67 counties,' that's also really problematic, and takes away one more tool that local governments have at managing their water quality issues.

Corrected: January 24, 2024 at 8:53 AM EST
The Florida Legislature granted UF-IFAS $250,000 to produce the fertilizer ordinance report. A previous version of this story said otherwise.
My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.
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