Friday, January 7, 2011

Sarasota County battles with UF-IFAS over fertilizer management 'tobacco science'

Over the past several days, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Lakeland Ledger have reported on the controversy surrounding a University of Florida - Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF-IFAS) publication that has been used by the fertilizer industry to argue against strong fertilizer pollution controls.  The Sierra Club has challenged the verity of that publication since it was published in 2009; the recent press coverage - Controversial Study says fertilizer bans are not helpful and LYONS:  Is secret fertilizer report 'tobacco science'? - focuses on Sarasota County's campaign to uncover the truth.


All across Florida, water bodies are so chock full of nitrogen and phosphorous that resultant harmful and nuisance algae blooms jeopardize public health and our ability to swim, fish and boat in lakes, springs, rivers and at our famous beaches.  Because our tourist economy depends on clean water, Florida communities need a low-cost way to combat the problem. 

It is far more cost-effective to prevent nutrient pollution than it is to utilize hundreds of thousands or millions of tax dollars in restoration efforts for impaired waters – the cost of removing nitrogen from water resources runs from $40,000-$200,000 per ton. 

For this reason, communities along the southwest gulf coast so devastated by the Red Tide blooms of 2005 were the first in the state to adopt strong urban nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer management ordinances. 

Those gulf coast ordinances were based on recommendations found in the Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Handbooks.

Florida Yards and Neighborhoods (FYN) Handbooks have been published since 1994 by UF-IFAS and FDEP; these handbooks are guides to Florida-friendly landscaping.

The 2009 FYN Handbook states in the Preventing Pollution section (pp. 23-24):  “To prevent water pollution from nutrient leaching and runoff, always follow these steps when fertilizing your lawn or landscape":   

Don’t fertilize before a heavy rain.
Apply an iron source instead of a nitrogen fertilizer during the summer.

These FYN recommendations are promoted by UF-IFAS County Extension Agents, Water Management Districts, stormwater professionals, the state’s National Estuary Programs and FDEP.  The summer rainy season fertilizer application bans found in so many local urban fertilizer ordinances are purely a codification of those two FYN recommendations. 

And yet, UF-IFAS, the very same institute that publishes and promotes those two FYN standards, has instead sided with the fertilizer industry and argued in favor of nitrogen application during the rainy summer months.

When in 2009, at the request of the fertilizer industry, UF-IFAS published the aforementioned paper titled Unintended Consequences Associated with Certain Urban Fertilizer Ordinances, it became the bible that UF-IFAS and the fertilizer industry thumped to convince local governments to disregard the 16 years of UF-IFAS’ own good water quality protection advice in the FYN Handbooks.

Although referred to recently in the press as “a study” and “research” this publication is not a scientific research paper; it does not include original scientific data and the assumptions and conclusions, completely unsupported by survey or science, are pure conjecture. Despite this fact, the publication has become the industry’s “scientific proof” against summer rainy season application bans. 

Since June 2009, the Sierra Club and local governments have appealed to UF-IFAS administrators and even to the University President for an explanation of the dissonance between the FYN recommendations and the Unintended Consequences publication, but our appeals have been ignored.

UF-IFAS administrators have continued to transmit Unintended Consequences to county and municipal governments as the “official” position held by UF-IFAS on urban fertilizer management despite the direct conflict between the FYN recommendations (and multiple other UF-IFAS and FDEP publications) and the Unintended Consequences paper.

Even worse, these same administrators have used this non-research-based paper to support attempts by the fertilizer industry to thwart strong urban fertilizer regulation at the state level and to get rid of the existing local ordinances.

In 2009 and 2010, the Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association, and the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association, with help from UF-IFAS, lobbied hard for legislation to deny county and municipal authorities local control of fertilizer management.

The good news is that water quality advocates, the FL Association of Counties, the FL League of Cities and the Florida Stormwater Association defeated their attempts.

However, without continued pressure from the public demanding the vetting of Unintended Consequences and the reasons for UF-IFAS’ conflicting messages, Florida communities will remain at risk for preemption legislation in 2011 and only the most expensive methods to reduce nutrient pollution.

Cris Costello
Regional Representative
Sierra Club