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Recent Passage of Lawn Care Bill Will Improve Pennsylvania's Waterways

For over a decade clean water advocates have sought updates to Pennsylvania’s Fertilizer Act to include more protections for waterways. At last, this July we can celebrate the passage of such legislation.   

We all have an important role to play when it comes to the health of our rivers and streams. Oftentimes, farmers feel much of the blame falls on them. However, routine lawn care practices can also impact our waterways. When applied in excess, lawn fertilizers can be a significant contributor to poor health of our waterways.    

In the Susquehanna and Potomac river basins alone, roughly the center half of the state, Pennsylvanians apply roughly 22 million pounds of nitrogen in the form of lawn fertilizer every year.  

That’s a lot of nitrogen - the most important nutrient for maintaining luscious green turfgrass - flowing into Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers. Excess nutrients feed not only grass. It fuels algae growth in our water bodies. When algae eventually dies, the decomposition process sucks oxygen out of the water, making it more difficult - sometimes impossible - for our streams, lakes and rivers to sustain life. 

Excess nutrients are a major cause for one third of Pennsylvania’s 86,000 miles of streams that are impaired. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, more and more waterways are failing to meet water-quality standards. 

Fertilizers enrich our lawns. But excessive nitrogen and phosphorus application impacts the clean water we need for better health, recreation, and wildlife diversity. 

Excess nutrients can travel across state boundaries to neighboring states, affecting water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, Ohio River, and Lake Erie. 

In the case of the Chesapeake Bay, the Susquehanna River supplies 55 percent of the Bay’s freshwater. Recent studies find it also provides 44 percent of its nitrogen pollution. While not the only culprit, Pennsylvania’s nitrogen contributions are the highest of all states with water flowing into the Bay. 

As a consequence, Pennsylvania is now under a so-called “pollution diet,” set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Commonwealth is required to reduce the rate of all nitrogen pollution sources by 32.5 million pounds over the next three years.

For too long, improving water quality has been the responsibility of state, county and local governments, with a major burden falling on our agricultural communities. Yet we can only achieve true progress if all Pennsylvanians are engaged, including those of us with the luscious green lawns.

No one expects fertilizer use to stop entirely. Instead, it’s time to modernize how fertilizer is regulated and applied in amounts that benefit lawns without causing impact to waterways. 

Last updated in 2001, Pennsylvania’s Fertilizer Act requires state licenses for manufacturers, sets registration rules for fertilizer products, and establishes minimum labeling standards. 

This July Act 83 of 2022 was signed into law establishing more environmentally beneficial turfgrass-management standards. Limits on nitrogen and phosphorous applications are already adopted by surrounding states.

Act 83 will also help to ensure that anyone - not just farmers - can get involved addressing nitrogen pollution. 

Here are a few best practices you can incorporate into your lawn care routines:

  • Less is best. Minimize fertilizer applications and never use phosphorus unless for a new lawn or to remedy bare spots.
  • Test the soil to know how much, if any, fertilizer is needed. 
  • Avoid applications during winter months or when the ground is frozen.
  • Do not apply on impervious surfaces, especially near waterways or anytime when the forecast calls for heavy rain.
  • Leave lawn clippings. The cut grass helps shade out weeds and conserve soil moisture.
  • Plant native trees and shrubs. Many times native plants require less fertilizer.

A well-maintained lawn, with a dense healthy cover of turf grass, can help to manage runoff pollution.

Act 83 will bring Pennsylvania’s lawns closer to this ideal, while significantly improving water quality, aligning Pennsylvania’s practices with neighboring states, and leveling the playing field by lessening the burden on Pennsylvania farmers.

Tackling excess fertilizer pollution through the measures enacted in Act 83 will go a long way in improving the health of local rivers and streams across the Commonwealth.   

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