Preventing Water Pollution Starts in Your Backyard

USDA

Photo Credit: USDA

Agricultural runoff is a prominent source of excess nutrients in water sources, but this nonpoint source of water pollution can originate with excess fertilizer being used on urban landscapes as well.

On April 13, 2017, the Colorado Foundation for Water Education was joined by Steve Lundt with the Barr Lake and Milton Reservoir Watershed Association for a webinar about cyanotoxins, algal blooms, public health and efforts to reduce nutrients in our water. 

“[BMPs] apply to your own lawn, just as they do on a corn field in Weld County,” says Lundt. “Don’t [fertilize] before a storm event and do soil testing—you may not even need phosphorus to grow your lawn.”

Sam DeLong

Photo Credit: Sam DeLong

So, what can an urban lawn owner do when they want to grow a vibrant, healthy, lawn without contributing to nutrient pollution? The following blog post by American Turf & Tree Care discusses ways that people can reduce phosphorous pollution in Colorado’s water sources by ensuring that the way they care for their yard benefits not only their lawn, but also the environment.

 

Preventing Water Pollution Starts in Your Backyard

By American Turf & Tree Care

JasenMiller

Photo Credit: Jasen Miller

There are a number of reasons why Denver and surrounding cities are among the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, but certainly, one draw is the immense natural beauty of Colorado. Beautiful mountains and flowing streams make our area an outdoorsman’s paradise—tourists and Colorado residents alike flock to the area for hiking, camping and a chance to take in the scenery.

With the uncertainty that accompanies recent EPA spending cuts and policy changes, many people in the area rightfully have concerns regarding sustainability and important environmental regulations that protect these natural resources. In light of this, it becomes ever more important for businesses and individuals to make responsible decisions about actions that may impact the future health and beauty of our area.

Mike Sinko

Photo Credit: Mike Sinko

Improper management of industrial waste, sewage and agricultural runoff are some of the worst offenders when it comes to pollution, but there are still a number of actions individuals can take to preserve Colorado’s water. Mindfulness, when it comes to the products you use in your backyard, can be a first step toward fighting pollution.

Phosphorus Pollution: Too Much of a Good Thing

Kevin Dooley (2)

Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley

Phosphorus is a natural ingredient found in soil that promotes root development and helps trees, shrubs and other plants mature and thrive. But if your lawn already has a sufficient level of phosphorus in the soil, fertilizer treatments can actually have a detrimental effect on the health of your grass and can lead to pollution.

Phosphorus works by attaching itself to soil particles, which are then absorbed by plants during their life cycle. When strong fertilizers are used in your lawn or garden, it can slow down the absorption process. In the meantime, heavy rains can wash phosphorus from your yard into ponds, streams, rivers and lakes nearby.

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Photo Credit: Dr. Jennifer L. Graham

Phosphorus contamination can kill fish, cause algae to grow at alarming and dangerous rates, turn water green and lower water quality, leach into drinking water and eventually contribute to “dead zones” in the ocean. The good news is that this pollution is largely avoidable, as most excessive phosphorus present in the environment is washed into natural bodies of water as the direct result of human activities.

Regulation Is Only the First Step

Boston Public Library

Photo Credit: Boston Public Library

The damage caused by phosphorus pollution is so severe that many states, Colorado included, have enacted laws to limit the use of phosphorus-heavy fertilizers. The Colorado Fertilizer Law, as enforced by the Colorado Department of Agriculture, regulates fertilizers and soil conditioners sold in Colorado for agricultural and residential use. The law requires that fertilizers be properly labeled with their tested nutrient levels – but these limitations only work if businesses and homeowners share a commitment to choosing fertilizers with low to no phosphorus.

“Pay attention to the three number label on the fertilizer you buy,” says Brad Woods, owner of American Turf & Tree Care in Greeley. The first number is nitrogen, the second is phosphorus, and the third is potassium. “You want to look for a bag where the second number is a zero or is low.”

How You Can Go Phosphorus-Free

You may not need additional phosphorus in your lawn. “Most lawn care providers offer complimentary soil testing and they can tell you what nutrients you need to restore balance to your lawn,” says Woods.

“One common mistake homeowners make is trying to fertilize dormant grass. When grass looks like it’s dying, but it’s just at the natural end of its growth cycle for the year, dumping fertilizer on top will actually do more harm than good,” says Woods. “If your soil is lacking phosphorus, a lawn care company can help you fix it in a way that is safe for your family and the environment.”

There are also some techniques you can use as part of your normal lawn maintenance routine to keep your yard naturally rich in phosphorus without the use of fertilizers, including:

  • NancyBeeToo

    Photo Credit: NancyBeeToo

    Composting: There is no better source of natural phosphorus than composted fruits and vegetables.

  • Tapping Organic Sources: If you need phosphorus and do not have access to compost, bone meal, manure, bat guano or soy meal will also do the trick! These materials are rich in nutrients and release phosphorus slowly, without the risk of contaminating water.
  • Mowing: When you mow your lawn in spring and summer, don’t bag the clippings! Grass clippings are high in phosphorus, and as long as they don’t mat the grass and block sunlight and oxygen from reaching your soil, they can be helpful in returning nutrients to the soil.
  • Don’t Overwater: Not only is overwatering bad for general lawn health, but it increases the risk of washing phosphorus out of your landscape.
Zach Dischner

Photo Credit: Zach Dischner

Don’t wash the natural beauty of Colorado down the drain! Water pollution is far-reaching, and contamination can hurt local wildlife, impact the health of you and your family, and disrupt the environment at large.

Being conscientious about the products you or your lawn care team uses in your yard is a simple way to fight back against pollution and protect your local ecosystem.

American Turf & Tree Care is a locally-owned company in Colorado on a mission to educate the local community on the impact their lawn care products have on the environment.  For more information about American Turf & Care, please visit http://www.americanturfandtreecare.com/.

Listen to the recording of the April 2017 webinar presented by the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and offered in partnership with Colorado Water Congress with support from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Read more about agricultural runoff as nonpoint source pollution in the CFWE blog post, The Runoff Conundrum.

hw_fall_2016_final_coverFind further coverage on these topics in the Public Health Issue of Headwaters Magazine and learn more about water quality in CFWE’s Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Quality Protection.

Not a Headwaters subscriber? Visit yourwatercolorado.org for the digital version. Headwaters is the flagship publication of the Colorado Foundation for Water Education and covers current events, trends and opportunities in Colorado water.

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4 Comments

Filed under Agriculture, Environment, Water Education and Resources, Water Quality

4 responses to “Preventing Water Pollution Starts in Your Backyard

  1. Larry Vickerman

    While this series of articles makes some good points, I am completely baffled by the fact that they all ignore the huge problem of over-fertilizing lawns with synthetic nitrogen (inorganic). The largest fertilized crop in the U.S. is lawns/parks/golf courses estimated at 40 million acres nationwide. Synthetic nitrogen is extremely water soluble and according to the USDA only 10 to 40% of applied synthetic nitrogen is utilized by the plant. The other 60-90% of synthetic nitrogen is leached into the water, volatilized as N20 (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere, or is immobilized in the soil. The University of Illinois found in 2007 that heavy fertilization with synthetic nitrogen also degrades soil organic matter. Less soil organic matter in the soil, the less water holding capacity in your soil. So, the more synthetic nitrogen you apply, the faster your grass grows and the more drought -prone your lawn becomes. Secondly, research has found that heavy doses of synthetic NPK fertilizers destroys soil microbes and fungi that supply nutrients to plants through symbiotic relationships with roots.

    The best fertility program for a lawn is to apply slow release organic nitrogen fertilizer sources such as alfalfa or chicken manure based products in the spring and late summer. Occasional topdressing with a good compost proceeded by core cultivation will help inoculate sterile soils with good microbes and fungi plus will help build organic matter. This coupled with never mowing below 3 inches, mulching clippings into the grass, and proper watering will virtually eliminate weed problems in the lawn. The other upside is you will have dense, green, grass that only needs mowing every ten days or so and you will virtually eliminate nutrient pollution from your lawn.

  2. Pingback: Reducing Algal Blooms at Barr Lake | Your Water Colorado Blog

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