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In the wake of devastating red tide spells and algae blooms that fouled shores, canals and beaches across Southwest Florida last summer, Collier County is contemplating stricter fertilizer rules.

Collier commissioners on Tuesday unanimously voted to move ahead with a revamped fertilizer ordinance that, among other things, will include a year-round phosphorus ban — unless a soil test indicates the nutrient is needed — and require fertilizers to have a minimum of 50% slow-release nitrogen content — bumping up the requirement from the current 30% threshold. 

“We’re here today to protect our water quality by improving our fertilizer ordinance,” said Danette Kinaszczuk, the county’s pollution control manager.

More: Sea turtles still dying, red tide counts very high

The proposed ordinance, which is expected to come back before commissioners later this year for final approval, is more stringent than the state model ordinance and Collier’s existing ordinance. It includes:

  • Accounting for nutrients in reclaimed water when applying fertilizer, including a requirement that the utilities provide that information to reclaimed water users.
  • Keeping fertilizer at least 10 feet away from a water body, lake, wetland or storm drain, even when using a deflector shield that had allowed application 3 feet away. 
  • Requiring that grass clippings and fertilizer applied on impervious surfaces are completely cleaned up.

Tuesday's move comes after other municipalities in Collier have gone their own way on how to regulate fertilizers.

More: Naples City Council to reinstate fertilizer blackout period

More: The fertilizer ordinance: Marco Island in ‘blackout period’

Officials from Collier, Marco Island and Naples met in February to try to devise a countywide ordinance to deal with the issue, but could not agree on the best ordinance during the workshop. 

Naples has since forged ahead with its own ordinance, which includes a rainy season blackout period.

The blackout period prohibits the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers from June 1 to Sept. 30, a measure met with opposition from some landscapers and golf course managers. Naples councilors are expected to cast the final vote on the ordinance Wednesday.

Marco Island in 2016 adopted a fertilizer ordinance that includes a rainy season ban.

County staff, however, recommended against a wet season ban and instead proposed to keep the current “prohibited application period” for nitrogen in place.

During that period the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen is banned if there is a flood, tropical storm or hurricane watch or warning in effect, or if there is a 60% chance of 2 inches or greater of rain in a 24-hour period.

“There is no scientific evidence that a wet season ban is effective,” said Kinaszczuk. “Additionally, the areas that have wet season bans, and have had them for years, still have algae issues.”

More: City's fertilizer blackout period not based on science, critics say

Bryan Unruh agreed. He is a professor of environmental horticulture and the associate director at the West Florida Research and Education Center of the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences,. 

“There are no known research or scientific publications that document and substantiate the urban fertilizer restrictive periods have had any impact, positive or negative,” he told commissioners Tuesday. 

Healthy, dense turf is the key, Unruh said.

“Not providing the nutrition to the plant when it is in the middle of its season, can lead to turf that will weaken itself and, as I showed, some of the data suggests that in unhealthy turf that loses its density, you can see an increased problem with nutrient impairment,” he said.

But some environmental groups disagreed with county staff and Unruh, urging commissioners to put in place a rainy season ban.

A rainy season blackout period and capping the amount of nitrogen applied to turf “are not only effective measures to improve water quality,” but also don’t lead to the “supposed unintended consequences opponents of a strong ordinance suggest are possible,” said Kelly McNab, environmental planning specialist for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. 

The group sent a letter to commissioners laying out its recommendations, including scientific resources and case studies.

“The county cannot control many of the current water quality issues we are facing,” McNab told commissioners. “You can, however, ensure that excess nutrients in the form of fertilizer do not go into the waterways during times of heavy rainfall.”

Despite the urging from some environmental groups to implement a blackout period, Commissioner Burt Saunders said the county should follow the recommendations laid out by Unruh.

“We can make a political decision and ban fertilizers during certain periods of the year and that’ll sound good … ,” he said. “Or we can pay attention to what the science is, what the science shows.”

A number of landscape and lawn care professionals asked commissioners Tuesday to move the ordinance ahead without a rainy season ban.

Eric Brown, director of agronomy for landscaper Massey Services, told commissioners that healthy plants help filter out pollutants, “hold on to soil” and protect water bodies.

“The key to protecting water bodies is to keep nutrients out of it, the way you do that in an urban landscape is by having healthy plants, particularly grass, but landscaped plants that are taken care of,” he said.

Todd Josko, a consultant for TruGreen lawn service, also urged commissioners to reject the call for a rainy season ban and keep the proposed ordinance the way county staff drafted it.

He said blackout periods may lead to an “overapplication” of fertilizer by non-professionals “trying to beat the ban.”

“‘Gosh, I know I can’t do anything starting next week until September, so if one bag is good, then three bags is great,’” Josko said. “And that’s exactly what we want to prevent from happening."

Connect with the reporter at patrick.riley@naplesnews.com or on Twitter @PatJRiley.

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