Fertilizers Creating Toxic Algae in Lake Erie

by Alec McClennan, on March 20, 2013

Did you know that in 2011 over 16% of Lake Erie was covered with Toxic Algae? Yuck. The algae reduces fish populations and threatens Ohio's Tourism industry. Read more about this issue of Lake Erie's condition and how fertilizer runoff is hurting this great lake in the New York Times article, featured in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The top picture here is from the beginning of the Summer and the bottom is from the Fall. You can see how much algae grew over the course of a few short months.

Lake Erie Algae Bloom Comparison

Scientists say that the algae feeds on fertilizer runoff. The more heavily it rains in the Spring, the more fertilizer that washes off into the storm drains, rivers, and ultimately Lake Erie. Much of the fertilizer run off is from farms, but plenty comes from lawn fertilizers. Water soluble lawn fertilizers easily dissolve in water and wash right off your lawn (or sidewalk, if you don't clean it) and contribute to the problem. Learn more about how fertilizers pollute the water here.

Lake Erie Algae Blooms Legs Swimming

Want some good news? There are a few things you can do right in your own backyard to help.

Switch to an Organic Lawn Fertilizer

First, switch out your synthetic fertilizer for a slow-release organic lawn fertilizer like Good Nature's Earth Turf, a premium organic lawn fertilizer, with a corn gluten meal base. These types of fertilizers are not water soluble and therefore, will not wash off into the water as easily as synthetic fertilizers. They rely on soil organisms to convert them into plant nutrients and become available slowly. This slow release keeps them from washing off the lawn.

Minimize Phosphorus

Poultry Manure is an organic fertilizer but it is high in phosphorus and may eventually create phosphorus that runs into the lake, so choose an organic fertilizer with a low phosphorus content. Read the numbers on the bag, the second number lets you know how much phosphorus is in your fertilizer. For instance, 8-0-5, has 8% Nitrogen, 0% Phosphorus, and 5% Potassium. Composted Poultry Manure is better than non-composted manure, which will leach a lot of phosphorus. This is the case in agricultural settings where they spread raw manure. Composted Poultry Manure is also much preferable over synthetic forms of phosphorus. If you must apply phosphorus, try Rock Phosphate for a very slow release.

Clean Your Driveway

If you (or your lawn care company) leaves fertilizer pellets all over the sidewalk, following an application, you're making the runoff much worse. All that fertilizer will dissolve with the first rain and have nowhere to go except down the drain. At least the synthetic fertilizer that's on your lawn has a chance to be absorbed by the soil before it runs off into the drain. This problem is much less severe with a good organic lawn fertilizer, like Good Nature's Earth Turf, but you should still clean off the sidewalks and driveways and get the excess fertilizer into the lawn. Why waste the money anyway?

Man Spraying Hose

Reduce Soil Compaction and Thatch

Lawns with compacted soil or heavy thatch are less absorbent than well maintained lawns with good soil biology and a minimal thatch layer. Heavy Thatch can act as a blanket over your lawn that prevents water and nutrients from reaching the roots. Compacted Soil works the same way. The more compacted your soil is, the less it can absorb water and nutrients, making it more prone to runoff, which will carry your synthetic fertilizers with it.

One standard way to minimize Heavy Thatch is with Annual Core Aeration. Core Aeration is good, but if you stick with an organic approach, eventually your soil biology and worms will be doing all the aeration you need.

There are a few products we really like for reducing thatch and loosening your soil. They are Liquid Aerator and Thatch Master. Combined, these two non-toxic, plant-based products will transform thatch into organic matter and provide the nutrients and building blocks for healthy, biodynamic soil and beautiful grass. 

In conclusion, following these tips will help keep Lake Erie safe for all to enjoy. 

Topics:Organic Lawn CareEnvironmental IssuesLawn Chemical IssuesLawn Aeration

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