Florida Keys

Citing 2018 algae bloom, Florida Keys city considers a fertilizer ban

Algae on Lake Okeechobee’s east shore surrounds boats in a harbor, July 11, 2018. An algae bloom has residents and government officials concerned after the 2016 algae bloom that impacted the environment and economies in Central Florida.
Algae on Lake Okeechobee’s east shore surrounds boats in a harbor, July 11, 2018. An algae bloom has residents and government officials concerned after the 2016 algae bloom that impacted the environment and economies in Central Florida. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Landscapers and homeowners in the Florida Keys village of Islamorada may soon face restrictions on the types of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides they can use in their yards.

The effort is aimed at preventing the sort of algae bloom that plagued the Southwest coast of Florida last year. The five-member Village Council last week instructed its legal staff to incorporate a ban on using fertilizer containing nitrogen and phosphorus during the South Florida rainy season, which the council defined as between July 1 and Sept. 30.

The proposed code change, introduced by Councilman Ken Davis, is modeled after one passed by the city of Sanibel, one of the areas severely impacted by the bloom. Fertilizers were not likely the cause of the algae bloom, Davis said, but they likely made it worse.

“Everybody canceled their reservations. Restaurants closed. It was devastating to their economy,” Davis said at an April 4 Village Council meeting, where the ban was discussed. “One of the things they realized was, that while the algae bloom had come in, their own abuse of fertilizer, etcetera, had helped fuel the fire.”

Davis said the bloom caused a loss of $40 million in area revenue, including $4 million in Sanibel’s tax revenue.

He said he spoke with area landscapers, who told him the ban would not negatively impact their business. Hilary Whitehouse, owner and operator of Model Pest Control, said South Florida is so lush there really is never a need to use fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus.

“We never hit a full dormancy period,” said Whitehouse, who has a degree in horticulture science from the University of Florida. “We are growing all year.”

She said landscapers are “applying unnecessary levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which are leaching into our soil.”

Whitehouse said her company is already compliant with the proposed code change, and other companies must adapt to a more science-based approach to remain successful under the coming rule.

“This doesn’t mean you have to fire your pest control company. This just means we have to get more into science. What do our plants need at what time of year,” she said. “Applying the right type of fertilizer at the right time of year is absolutely critical.”

The code change has not been written yet, but when it is, it may also include changes to when and where glyphosate herbicides like Roundup can be used.

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