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Island Towns United in Effort to Control Nitrogen Pollution

During the Spring 2014 Town Meetings, voters of all six Island towns approved a set of regulations on the sale and use of lawn fertilizerThe new bylaw was created by the MV Boards of Health in consultation with the MV Commission, using input from elected officials, local landscapers, golf course managers, UMass Extension scientists, and many members of the community, including VCS.

The bylaw was in part a response to an effort to reduce nutrient pollution across all of Massachusetts' waterways. A recently-passed law would enact restrictions on the sale and use of fertilizers statewide, but due to our unique coastal ecology Martha's Vineyard was given an opportunity to create our own rules, locally tailored to more closely match our environmental concerns. For example, the emphasis of the state law is on controlling phosphorus (the critical pollutant of freshwater ponds and streams), but the primary problem in our waters is nitrogen.

Having one set of standards Island-wide is essential to effectively address the impact of nitrogen pollution on our coastal ponds, for the simple reason that many of these bodies of water receive inputs from more than one town. But it also greatly simplifies implementation -- consider the alternative, where landscaping companies are switching out chemicals and changing application rates as they cross town lines.

With so many threats to our coastal waters, why bother with lawn fertilizer? Five to fifteen percent of the nitrogen that is impairing our ponds comes from lawns, so regulating fertilizer is an inexpensive way to address one piece of the challenge. It is an accomplishment of environmental protection, advocacy, and community action worth celebrating – and one whose success could not have been confidently predicted, since anything can happen when success rests on passage at six separate town meetings. It will also raise public awareness, informing homeowners about best practices for managing their own lawns, and build momentum for tackling the bigger challenge of dealing with nitrogen from conventional septic systems.

Nitrogen: How to Live with it, Since We Can’t Live Without it

Through our Vineyard Lawns program and general advocacy, VCS has long been working to spread the word about nitrogen pollution in our ponds. Nitrogen is a perfectly natural, essential element of life (it is 75% of the mass of the atmosphere, after all) that can nevertheless be quite harmful in excess. It is typically the limiting nutrient for algal growth in coastal marine ecosystems, meaning that pond algae generally have more than enough of the other resources they need to thrive (sunlight and other nutrients such as phosphorus), but are held in check by a relative lack of nitrogen. But in recent years, runoff from lawn fertilizers and groundwater flows from septic systems have fixed this “problem,” allowing algal growth to explode, degrading water quality for everything else in the estuaries.

While we will continue to focus on education and advocacy regarding water quality, VCS believes the time has come to embrace active regulation of fertilizer use.