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Michigan may join other Great Lakes states in restricting phosphorus fertilizer
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Will bags of lawn fertilizer containing phosphorus become a hot commodity on the black market?
It is not an issue on most people's radar, but a bill working its way through the state Legislature could change how Michigan residents care for their lawns.
The state House passed a bill (HB 5368) to prohibit the use of fertilizer containing phosphorus unless its use is shown necessary through use of a soil test. Last week, the measure was referred to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs.
"We've worked on it for many years,'' said Rachel Hood, executive director of West Michigan Environmental Action Council. "It makes environmentally safe fertilizing a little easier; you don't have to discern between products on the shelves.''
If passed by the Senate, Michigan would join other Great Lakes states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York and Illinois in restricting phosphorus fertilizer in some applications. Similar bans are under consideration in three other states.
Unless fertilizer and lawn-care industries mount an offensive, the ban is expected to win approval. Some area counties -- including Ottawa, Allegan, Muskegon and Van Buren -- already have phosphorus restrictions.
"I think it is part of a larger, positive trend with people choosing not to invest time and money into lawns, instead using groundcovers and perennial gardens,'' Hood said. "It ultimately reduces our expenses in many ways.''
Most packaged fertilizers contain three key ingredients - nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, which are listed in a familiar N-P-K ratio. Phosphorus is represented by the middle number, so a bag of fertilizer labeled 11-22-10 contains 22 percent phosphorus.
The bill's primary objective is to reduce phosphorus entering watersheds and settling in streams and lakes. Phosphorus promotes the growth of weeds and algae, leading to oxygen-starved "dead zones" where fish and other aquatic creatures cannot survive.
Some algae blooms have led to large fish kills in West Michigan. One environmental group issued a report saying a single pound of phosphorus can stimulate growth of up to 500 pounds of algae.
John Legge, conservation director of The Nature Conservancy of West Michigan, says the statewide ban will ultimately benefit Michigan residents, especially those who spend time on inland lakes.
"These benefits people will see - benefits in water clarity and water quality,'' Legge said. "Doing it in ways that are simple and not economically harmful; we're talking about low-hanging fruit here.''
Michigan earlier this year became one of 16 states to ban phosphates in dishwashing detergents. Bans on phosphate-heavy laundry detergents have been in place nearly 20 years.
The groundswell has encouraged greater reliance on organic versions of phosphorus, such as bone meal, blood meal, seaweed extract and sulfate of potash. Because the soil's microorganisms must first digest the organic nutrients to make them useful to the lawn, it takes longer to see that dark greening effect homeowners covet.
When properly applied, fertilizer containing phosphorus plays an important role in promoting healthy root growth, said Rick Vuyst, president and CEO of Fruit Basket Flowerland.
"People who apply fertilizers containing phosphorus responsibly, it shouldn't be an issue,'' Vuyst said. "You don't want to broadcast fertilizer on frozen ground or compacted soil, and certainly don't let it get on the pavement.''
Unfortunately, many people do not follow this common-sense approach, proponents of the ban suggest.
East Grand Rapids since 1982 has restricted phosphorus use around Reeds Lake, and Cannon Township enacted similar protection of its lakes seven years ago.
Nationally, phosphorus restrictions gained traction after Minnesota in 2004 became the first state to limit its use.
Restrictions approved that same year in Wisconsin prompted a courtroom showdown, however. Opponents of local bans claimed they violated equal protection and free speech clauses of the U.S. and Wisconsin constitutions. A federal judge tossed out the lawsuit in June, 2005.
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