Lawn fertilizers are polluting the Long Island Sound, but local organizations have a plan

By Chelsea Sullivan

Lawn fertilizer has caused drastic problems with excess nutrients like nitrogen causing algal blooms in the Long Island Sound. Local groups like Friends of Bellport Bay are working to help people make a change.

Farmers, landscapers and many people with front lawns use fertilizers to make their plants grow, and most of these contain significant amounts of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus. When these nutrients aren’t used up by the plants, they end up being washed into waterways, such as the Long Island Sound.

Lawn fertilizers are one of many sources of nutrients that cause plants like algae to grow in the Sound, Molly Jacobs, a curriculum director at Project Oceanology said.

“Too many of these nutrients lead to an unhealthy amount of algae, a condition known as an algal bloom,” she said. “When the algae die and decompose, the decomposition process uses up oxygen and leads to dead zones.”

More areas of the Sound are becoming dead zones. This means that the oxygen levels are so low, some species are not able to survive. This happens in most areas once in a while, but in areas near New York City, this happens almost every year.

“Part of the issue could be because people are moving closer to the water and we have millions of people living within small distance from the shore,” Hannes Baumann, Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences at University of Connecticut, said.

In an April study,  Baumann found that the Long Island Sound is warming three or four times faster than the global average for oceans.

“The solution we’re hoping to have is legislation that will limit the amount of nitrogen that you can put in a lawn fertilizer sold or used on Long Island,” Doug Wood, the founder of Grassroots Environmental Education, said. “We’re having more fish kills, more algal blooms, which is really bad for tourism. When we have to close the beach that’s devastating in the summertime. There are so many businesses that depend on the tourist trade.”

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in Connecticut has been working to change the water quality of the Sound since it was founded it 2011. They’ve already made significant changes in reducing nitrogen levels and are continuing to further their efforts.

“Together with New York we have reduced nitrogen inputs to the Long Island Sound by nearly 60 percent,” Matthew Lyman, the Environmental Analyst at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said. “These reductions have led to improved water quality throughout the Sound, particularly in the western Sound.”

The Long Island Sound study spans throughout Connecticut and New York, and it works on collecting information and finding solutions for issues in the Sound, including fertilizer runoff.

“We’ve been working with Connecticut and New York to agree to a total maximum daily load for nitrogen, which we have achieved,” James Ammerman, the Science Coordinator of the Long Island Sound study, said.

This effort is a result of the Clean Water Act passed by the U.S. government, requiring states to develop plans to reduce the amount pollutants entering certain unhealthy bodies of water to increase the water quality.

In the end of 2018, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation announced over $2 million in grants for local government and community groups to improve water quality and other problems in the Long Island Sound. Proposals for funding from the grant are being accepted until next month by organizations and projects working to improve the Sound.

“The goal is to urge people on land to change their habits so that they are reducing their nitrogen footprint by using alternative lawn composts vs synthetic high nitrogen fertilizers,” Thomas Schultz, the cofounder of Friends of Bellport Bay, said.

Friends of Bellport Bay is a non-profit organization that holds events to provide community members with more eco-friendly lawn products. On April 27, the group held an event with Center for Environmental Education and Diversity (CEED). They sold Stable to Soil (SOS) lawn compost, a new locally created organic lawn compost.

Compost is a much more environmentally-friendly alternative to fertilizer, because it is made completely from organic materials. SOS only uses recycled materials like hay and yard waste from their farm in St. James.

“We’re trying to get homeowners to stop using high nitrogen fertilizer that you get at the big box stores like Home Depot,” Mary Butler, director of Friends of Bellport Bay, said. “At CEED, we made low nitrogen fertilizer available to people available to people cutting two-thirds of nitrogen. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a start.”

Across Long Island, an increasing number of companies are selling more eco-friendly lawn fertilizers.

“About a hundred households a year are converted to using natural products,” Schultz said. “It’s slow because it’s hard to change people’s habits, but the good news is that people are responding. Once they go green, they kick themselves for not doing it sooner.”

Chelsea Sullivan

Chelsea Sullivan is in her second year as a Journalism major and Digital Arts minor at Stony Brook University. She grew up in Queens, New York and went to The Mary Louis Academy, an all-girl high school in Jamaica. She is an editor for the listicles section of the Stony Brook Independent and works at a bagel store in Queens on the weekends. Any free time she has she spends going to concerts, playing guitar, exploring New York City, or going on spontaneous road trips with her friends.

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