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Red tide is a harmful algal blooms that can sicken or even kill local wildlife. It also causes respiratory issues in humans and other animals. Wochit

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The Naples City Council revised — critics say weakened — its fertilizer ordinance in October to allow more use of nutrients that can exacerbate red tides like the one that has plagued the west coast of Florida for nearly a year.

The revised ordinance did away with a June 1 to Sept. 30 blackout period, which had prohibited the use of nitrogen- and phosphorous-based fertilizers during rainy season, when the chemicals are more likely to end up in waterways.

Instead, the ordinance now prohibits fertilizer application "when soils are saturated, heavy rain is likely, or during a storm or flood watch/warning." Collier County has a similar standard.

“We went from no fertilizer during the wet season to now if we get a prediction of rain, there is to be no fertilization. Well, that’s not enforceable,” said Councilwoman Linda Penniman, who voted against removing the blackout period. “It weakened our ordinance.”

Compare: Naples' old fertilizer ordinance vs. its new ordinance

Red tide forum in Collier: Scientists try to answer residents' questions

Red tides start miles offshore, away from nutrient sources, for reasons not clearly understood by scientists. But when winds and currents carry red tides closer to shore, coastal nutrient pollution can feed them, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Red tide is different from the blue-green algae crisis afflicting other Southwest Florida waters.

Stephanie Molloy, the city's natural resources manager, said the city removed the fertilizer blackout period based on the recommendations of local experts.

"Local experts indicated that plants should be fertilized only when they are actively growing," she wrote in an Aug. 28 email. "Plants not fertilized properly during the growing season do not develop a healthy root system, and this limits their ability to absorb nutrients.

"Also, fertilizers applied outside of the growing season are unlikely to be absorbed by plants as the plants are in a dormant state, and so the nutrients will remain in the environment and be transported with runoff into waterways when it rains," she added.

But as the red tide bloom continues to kill thousands of fish and hurt local businesses, residents are urging their local officials to take greater action to protect the Gulf.

Grass-roots organization Collier Clean Water is collecting signatures on two petitions that ask the city and the county to pass "commonsense fertilizer ordinances with higher standards than the state's model and with standards higher than the current ordinance(s)."

One of those higher standards is a blackout period during rainy season.

Rena Anders, who organized the Naples Hands Along the Water event and founded Collier Clean Water, said the group is focused on bringing about change rather than just complaining.

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“I believe that we’re contributing to this,” Anders said, adding that this is the worst red tide she’s seen since moving to Naples in 2007. “You can’t just say that you care about the environment; you have to put your money where your mouth is and do something about it.”

Florida algae crisis: What's the difference between red tide and blue-green algae?

While Naples repealed its blackout period, other cities throughout the state implemented one.

The Marco Island City Council passed a fertilizer ordinance that included a June 1 through Sept. 30 blackout period in 2016. Like Clean Water Collier's proposed blackout period, it specifically applies to fertilizers that contain nitrogen and phosphorous.

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Rhonda Watkins, Collier County's principal environmental specialist, said nitrogen and phosphorous can be especially problematic for the fish population.

"When those nutrients get into the water they can cause algae blooms, which reduces the amount of oxygen in the water, which then can cause fish kills," she told the Naples Daily News after Marco Island passed its ordinance.

More: After months of stinky fish, Collier to start canal cleanups

More: Snook, redfish off limits for anglers due to red tide

Sanibel, which has been greatly affected by red tide, has had a strong fertilizer ordinance since 2007. Its blackout period is July through September, and fertilizer cannot be applied within 25 feet of waterbodies. In Collier County and Naples, the restriction is 10 feet.

James Evans, Sanibel's director of natural resources, said the city has conducted a comprehensive nutrient management plan that has measured water quality since 2001. Evans said the study shows that water quality has improved since 2007.

"Inorganic nitrogen and orthophosphorus were both significantly reduced as a result of the fertilizer ordinance," Evans said.

Sarasota County has a fertilizer blackout period from June 1 to Sept. 30, but Venice Vice Mayor Bob Daniels wants to take it one step further and completely ban the use of fertilizer within city limits.

The Venice City Council on Tuesday passed a resolution discouraging the use of fertilizers on a 6-1 vote. Council members agreed to consider Daniels' proposal for a ban after they have more data.

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Anders said Collier County and Naples can look to Venice as an example of putting the well-being of the environment above aesthetics. 

"Venice decided that having pretty plants is not as important as keeping contaminants out of the Gulf," she said. "I don't see Naples sending the same message.

“I'm not saying Naples can’t fertilize. What I'm saying is fertilize intelligently, fertilize at the right time, and use fertilizers when it’s not going to pollute our waterways as much.”

The Collier County and Naples petitions have 305 and 25 signatures, respectively, and have caught the attention of local officials.

Commentary: Controlling future red tides is in your hands

Danette Kinaszczuk, the county's pollution control manager, said the county plans on implementing some of the suggestions outlined in the petition. First, though, it's focusing on groundwater protection rules and its pollution control ordinance, which will go before the county's Planning Commission on Sept. 20.

"We recognize that there are more strict (fertilizer) ordinances out there. In fact, all of our neighbors to our north have summertime bans from Lee County — and all municipalities in Lee County — to Pinellas County, but unfortunately they are still experiencing severe algae issues, too," she wrote in an email last week. "We will continue to focus on outreach and education until we are able to update the fertilizer ordinance."

Penniman said she'd be happy to discuss the fertilizer ordinance at a future City Council meeting and that she "strongly supports" implementing higher standards.

"We have people begging us to do something about the red tide," she said, "and this is where we can start."

More red tide news:

 

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