Pinellas lawn fertilization companies, landscapers face new certifications

Photo courtesy of Pinellas County Watershed Management | County officials say many homeowners don't realize that fertilizers and lawn debris contribute to green-water algal blooms.

Photo courtesy of Pinellas County Watershed Management | County officials say many homeowners don't realize that fertilizers and lawn debris contribute to green-water algal blooms.

Lawn fertilizers may help your grass grow, but local environmental experts say when they get into the water, they can do the same to algae — leading to green-water algal blooms in Tampa Bay and other nearby bodies of water.

To minimize the effects of fertilizer and yard waste, Pinellas County took the lead this year to certify all fertilizer applicators and landscape maintenance companies in best practices.

Statewide, all fertilizer applicators must be certified by 2014. But Pinellas County passed its own ordinance requiring fertilizer applicators to be certified by Jan. 19. About 80 have done so, according to Kelli Hammer Levy, county division director for watershed management, and the county is granting extensions to certify as many companies as possible.

Pinellas County landscape management companies must be certified by July 18. The state makes no requirements for such companies, but Levy believes they can play a big role in limiting the problem. “The fertilizer stays on the lawn, and when you blow clippings or landscape debris into the water, it’s depositing fertilizer there as well,” she says.

To become certified, contractors pay $15 to attend classes, which can be done in person or online, Levy says. The county expects to certify hundreds of landscape management and fertilizer companies, she says.

For now, the department’s focus is on education rather than enforcement. Levy’s not sure when strict enforcement will begin, but when it does, violators can be fined $50 for the first offense and a rising scale up to $10,000 for repeat offenders. “It gives us a way to make the system fair for the businesses that are doing it correctly,” she says.

The “best practices” include limiting the amount and timing of nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizers; not spreading fertilizer within 10 feet of wetlands or water bodies; collecting all lawn and tree clippings; and pointing lawn-cutting equipment so the discharge doesn’t face the road or wetlands.

“For a lot of the lawn maintenance companies, the measures are common-sense practices they’re probably already doing,” says Matt Frank, owner of A-rated Hemlock Lawn Maintenance in St. Petersburg. He adds that customers should be aware that some standard practices might be affected, such as cutting along the edge of a lake.

Frank, who plans to seek certification before the July deadline, says the state law impacts fertilizer applicators the most, since the regulations govern how much nitrogen and phosphorus can be used, and bans them entirely between June 1 and Sept. 30.

Peter Eells, owner of A-rated Always Green Inc. in Oldsmar, already obtained his fertilizer applicator certification. He says he doesn’t anticipate many changes to his practices, as he doesn’t use nitrogen and phosphorus very often in those months. “A lot of these practices are things we’ve already been doing,” he says. “It’s adding another layer to the same process. I don’t really see anything positive or negative about it.”

For homeowners who want their lawns fertilized in the summer months, Eells offers a variety of creative solutions, including slow-release products that spread the fertilizer over time.

Levy says the new state rules impact not only the look of the waterways, but also their safety. She says algal blooms cause fish kills, and possibly rashes or respiratory problems for people who swim in the water or get near it.

“It’s a lot easier and less expensive to control the source of the blooms than it is to clean them up,” Levy says. “Tourism is our big industry, and people don’t want to come here if they can’t go to the beach.”

For a list of certified companies, go to pinellascounty.org/resident/nature_environment.htm


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