Gardening: Algae blooms, fertilizer and science

Eileen Ward

Watching the local news lately, I’m hearing more and more reference to sewage as the cause of the algae blooms rather than the fertilizer uses of residents. I suppose as they begin more testing the results are showing sewage traces.

More:Gardening: Marco Island in bloom

In fact, the dirty legal secret that no one wants to talk about is that according to  a Jan. 31 report, 88 million gallons of wastewater spilled into state waters. That’s according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Mats of dead and dying algae hug the Captiva shoreline.

A million gallons of it came from the city of Arcadia where debris clogged a pump and pressurized pipes lead to sewage spilling out of a manhole and into the Peace River. What happened in Arcadia is one example of the statewide problem with aging infrastructure. Old clay pipes just collapsed from the pressure. More than 500 overflows were reported across the state, dumping that 88 million gallons of wastewater into roads, houses, parks and waterways. 

It all flowed downstream and came to rest where? My guess is along those waterway banks and into the dead-end canals of the communities at the end of the line like Cape Coral and Fort Myers and finally into the Gulf of Mexico. 

The worst algae bloom in history happened the summer after Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Wilma caused similar red tide problems as it is stirred up from the bottom of the Gulf.

The State of Florida should have put out a warning to people that they were dealing with raw sewage. I recently read that there is an outbreak of Hepatitis A in the area. As time goes on the plants along the rivers will absorb it and use it and heavy rains will help leach it into the soil and dilute it and wash it away. Those releases from Lake Okeechobee would probably do more good than harm in helping flush the contaminants from our watersheds. Unfortunately, this flushing caused great misery to communities downstream last year. We will probably see more blooms this year but nothing like last year since the fuel has been diluted.

So, I want to point out the need to have healthy and well-fed plants in our communities since they are the best filtration system for pollutants from our land areas. Fertilizer is not something we ever want to be applied or allowed to flush or leach into our waterways. That is why when applying fertilizer, you need to follow the recommendations of the scientists who have studied and written about it.

I believe it is in our best interest to listen to a University of Florida scientist than a politically motivated politician or environmental group. I was so disappointed when Naples reversed their summer ban decision. Their own environmentalist told them they were wrong, yet they did it anyway.

Following are the facts about fertilizer regulations from the state.

The State of Florida implemented a certification requirement called the “Limited Urban Commercial Fertilizer Applicator Certification.” This is in the Florida Statutes under Chapter 482.1562. Any person applying fertilizer for-hire must be the licensee and have this license in their pocket when applying fertilizer in the State of Florida. I cannot get the license as a business owner and allow my employees to fertilize under my license. I would have to push the spreader myself. To get this license you have to take a test and you have to know how to do the math to determine how much nitrogen and other nutrients are in the fertilizer, what the square footage is of the area to be fertilized, what quantity of the fertilizer should be applied to the square footage in question and how to calibrate your fertilizer spreader to apply the determined quantity to your area.  You are also taught the common-sense rules about not allowing the fertilizer to get into water bodies or onto impervious surfaces or down storm drains, how to read a fertilizer label and the plant symptoms and needs for when to fertilize.  Before you can take this test, you must take a local class in best management practices which is not enough to be able to legally apply fertilizer.

Anyone who has gone through the process and is licensed to apply fertilizer does not need to be led around by the nose and told when and what to use on their landscapes. The state model is a common-sense guideline which should be learned and followed by anyone using fertilizer. 

  • Don’t fertilize when expecting storms, floods or with saturated soil.
  • Read the label requirements and follow the Florida Administrative Code and IFAS landscape requirements.
  • Buffer of 10 feet or 3 feet with a deflector shield.
  • Agricultural exemption

So, if the municipalities want to enforce the use of fertilizer they should stop anyone they see fertilizing and ask to see their license. If they can’t produce one, they should be told to cease and desist immediately and fined if caught again. A licensed applicator knows what they are doing and an unlicensed one does not.

All fertilizer spreaders should be inspected for a deflector shield and if it doesn’t have one should not be allowed to continue using it. If someone is fertilizing right after a storm or just before one, they should be told to cease and desist. 

In January I witnessed the grounds keepers in the medians fertilizing during a very cold period. The plants had been and were still dormant and this was followed by heavy rains within days of their application. The plants did not take up any of that nitrogen as they were dormant, and the heavy rains flushed it into the ground where it continued to leach and enter the ground water. If this had been summer when plants were warm and actively using nutrients the fertilizer would have been used by the plants and not gone into our water table. I have noticed with interest that Marco Island’s water quality tests have shown worse conditions for the last couple of years since they implemented the more stringent fertilizer ordinance. Coincidence? Maybe, but I think not!

Please follow the science! And put your energy and money into the sewage infrastructure before the next major hurricane.

More:Gardening: Brown-spot season is upon us

Eileen and Peter Ward have owned a landscape and lawn maintenance company for 35 years. Eileen can be reached at or 239-394-1413.