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. Check out this article from the New York Times and Cleveland Plain Dealer about Lake Erie's condition and how Fertilizer Runoff is hurting Lake Erie.
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 the summer.
Scientists say that the algae feeds on fertilizer runoff. The rain in the spring, the more fertilizer 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 the fertilizer off of it) and contribute to the problem. Learn More about How Fertilizers Pollute the Water here
Want some good news? There are a few things you can do right in your own backyard to help.
First, switch out your synthetic fertilizer for a slow release organic lawn fertilizer like Good Nature's Earth Turf or Good Nature's Corn Gluten 9-0-0. These fertilizers are not water soluble and won't wash off into the water as easily as synthetic fertilizers will. 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.
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 - 8-0-5 for instance 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 agriculture 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.
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?
Lawns with compacted soil or heavy thatch are less absorbent than well maintained lawns with good soil biology and a minimal thatch layer. Thatch can act as a blanket over your lawn that prevents water and nutrients from reaching the roots. (Learn More about Thatch and how to minimize it). Compacted soil works the same way. The more compacted your soil is, the less it can absorb water and the more prone it is to runoff the surface, carrying your synthetic fertilizers with it.
One standard way to minimize 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 Aerify Plus and Biological DeThatcher.
So, there are a few tips for how you and your friends can help make Lake Erie a healthier lake.