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New Fertilizer Law Will Cut Bay Pollution, Save Money

Fertilizer Good news from the oldest continuous lawmaking body in the New World, the Virginia General Assembly:  Legislation that bars the Virginia sale of fertilizer containing phosphorus for use on established lawns has passed both the House of Delegates and state Senate and is on its way to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

That’s a big deal because once the measure is enacted into law and becomes effective in 2013, it could cut up to 230,000 pounds of phosphorus pollution per year, or 22 percent of Virginia’s phosphorus reduction goal for 2017. And that could save Virginia localities millions of dollars by reducing their need to install expensive runoff treatment systems to comply with the new Chesapeake Bay pollution “diet.” 

The concept is simple: avoid costly pollution cleanups later by not allowing the pollution to occur in the first place. Lawn and turf grasses are now the largest “crops” grown in the Chesapeake watershed and are increasing at an annual rate of 8.6 percent -- faster than the rate of population growth. But even Lawn1 though most established lawns require no phosphorus, many homeowners routinely apply fertilizer containing phosphorus to yards and lawns. Fertilizer with nitrogen is also frequently misapplied to paved surfaces, frozen ground, or grass that simply doesn’t need it.

Virginia Tech scientists estimate that runoff from lawns adds millions of pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus each year to our streams, rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay. This excess nutrient pollution over-stimulates the growth of Bay algae, clouding the water, stunting underwater grasses, and robbing the water of vital oxygen.

Once phosphorus gets into runoff, it can cost more than $30,000 per pound to remove it using engineered stormwater systems. But by banning the sale and application of fertilizer with phosphorus for routine lawn maintenance, Virginia will help solve a major Chesapeake Bay problem for little or no cost to citizens.

The new Virginia law also requires lawn service companies and other professionals to apply fertilizer only according to nutrient management standards, mandates clear labeling on fertilizer packages to inform consumers about proper application rates, and prohibits the use of de-icers that contain nitrogen.

The bipartisan legislation was sponsored by Senator Richard Stuart and Delegate Lee Ware but also had a host of co-patrons from both sides of the political aisle and the support of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), James River Association, Home Builders Association of Virginia, Virginia Association for Commercial Real Estate, and the state’s agribusiness community.

Similar bills are under consideration in the Maryland and Pennsylvania legislatures.


During the Virginia legislative session, the halls of the state Capitol are thick with lobbyists trying to catch the ear of lawmakers. This year, some of most effective lobbyists have been 4th-graders from Spratley Gifted Center in Hampton, Va.

A group of 24 of them – Ms. Michele Ferrel’s 4th-grade class of science and language arts students – Kidslobbying have visited Richmond twice to lobby for a bill that would make the striped bass the official salt-water fish of Virginia (brook trout are already the state’s official freshwater fish).  The students were at the Capitol January 26 to speak before a state Senate committee considering the legislation, sponsored by Hampton Senator John Miller (above right, with the students), and were back this week to testify before a House of Delegates committee.

So far, they’re batting 1000. The bill passed both committees unanimously and has already passed the full Senate, again unanimously.

Ms. Ferrel reports the kids already study the Chesapeake Bay and related issues in the classroom, and they raise baby brook trout as a class project. So when Senator Miller visited the school earlier in the year and told them about the striped bass proposal, they wanted to jump in and help. Ever since, they’ve been doing research, generating enthusiasm among classmates, parents, and the school PTA, sending hand-written letters to Assembly members, and making the two day-trips to Richmond to speak directly to lawmakers.

“They are so excited to be a part of this,” she says. When her students stood before the imposing panel of legislators to testify, “I had tears in my eyes,” she said. “It was very emotional for me. This is so real and hands-on. We talk with them at school about nature and the Bay and pollution, but to actively be a part of it, to help make a difference…it is just really incredible.”

The students hope they’ll get one more trip to Richmond before it’s over. They’re crossing their fingers the bill will pass and that they’ll be invited to attend the bill signing with Governor Bob McDonnell.

I wouldn’t bet against them.

Chuck Epes

(top photo credit: iStock)


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y'all surely realize that mere relabeling of bags from a marketing term 'lawn maintenance' to something else will NOT give you the intended reduction in P in our streams and Bay?

VA just missed major educational, data collection and fiscal opportunities to
1. get industry service providers and homeowners to soil test BEFORE using ANY FERTILIZER ANYWHERE

2. publish that data on Google Earth/GIS to demonstrate that test has been done within 3 years for the 'crop' turfgrass and that it needs P for maintenance...

3. the ability to collect fines/fees to fund Nutrient Management Education if no proof of soil test/recommendation from lab for P for lawn maintenance.

Way to go VA. At least it's a start. I have serious doubts that lawn over fertilization is that critical when compared to farmers over applying fertilizer along with manure. I can see over fertilization at golf courses. When is MD and PA going to pass such a law?

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