In the Spotlight

News & Features

Bill targets excessive use of lawn fertilizer
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
April 3, 2002


A bill that would restrict the use of phosphate fertilizers passed the state House of Representatives by a large majority. The House adds its approval to the Senate, which recently voted heavily in favor of the bill. The measure was at the top of the agenda for lake associations throughout the state, as well as urban residents interested in water quality. If law, proponents say the bill would help make Minnesota's water cleaner, and would reduce harmful algae blooms that pop up late every summer.

Phosphorous is an essential element of plant life.

But phosphorous is not plentiful in all soils. By one estimate, 30 percent of the state's soil is short the phosphorous it needs to grow healthy turf. Much of that 30 percent is in outstate Minnesota, so it's with good cause that some Minnesotans apply phosphates to lawns and farmland. The problem is some apply too much, and some accidentally spread it on asphalt, and other impervious surfaces.

The result is that phosphorous runs off into streams and rivers, and later feed algae blooms that smother many lakes late in the summer.

Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, who authored the House version of the bill, says it's a big problem.

"The use of phosphorous fertilizer in the areas that are abundant in phosphorous, not only is unnecessary, but it is also very expensive for local units of government to counteract. One pound of phosphorous produces 300 to 500 pounds of algae, and it costs at least $200 a pound to remove it," according to Leppik.

Under Leppik's bill, and its companion in the Senate, residents of the seven-county metro area could not apply any phosphates to their lawn if they didn't need them.

Outstate residents would be limited to fertilizer with 3-percent content.

But the bill would not apply to professionals or farmers. So farmers could continue to apply phosphorous fertilizer when needed. And metro residents could too, granted they get a professional soil test that determines their lawn need phosphorous.

Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, who is a soil scientist, says by requiring residents get a soil test, the bill only restricts unnecessary uses of phosphorous.

"Do you need phosphorous? Yes you do once in a while. When you're planting, when you're seeding. When you have low phosphorous, you need phosphorus. And you know what? This bill lets you buy it. The bill lets you apply it. All you have to do is get a soil test first. Show that you need it," said Juhnke.

Few legislators doubt there is a phosphorous runoff problem. But there were those, like Rep. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, who weren't convinced that restricting phosphorous would actually help purify Minnesota's water.

He and the 15 others who opposed the measure believe the real problem is grass clippings and decaying leaves.

"In Minneapolis where they compared phosphorous-fertilized lawns and non-phosphorous fertilized lawns, they couldn't distinguish the difference. And the big problem is the grass clippings and the leaves. But phosphorous, for your information, doesn't run off," Westrom said.

Proponents, who finally won the day, disagreed, saying that necessary phosphorous doesn't run off, but excess phosphorous does.

Nevertheless, Westrom and others objected to the bill because it misses the target. Westrom asked instead that the bill apply only to the seven-county metro area, and not to greater Minnesota.

"Let's not put a whole statewide ban in place; let's start this in the metropolitan counties, see the results in three, four years and see that it really cleans up the water like we're being told it's going to. Or else we can reevaluate the facts then and go back to local control, which they have right now," he said.

Proponents conceded that grass clippings and decaying leaves are indeed the main source of phosphorous runoff. But Rep. Junkke says that doesn't mean phosphorous restrictions aren't important.

"Eliminating phosphorous on your lawns, is that going to completely eliminate the algae blooms and the phosphorous loading in our lakes? No. Will it help, you bet it will," he said.

The House and Senate versions are identical. The bill will now go before the Senate, where, if passed again, will go to the governor for his signature before becoming law.