Cape Coral city council members walked gingerly around the tradeoff between lush green lawns and restrictions on nutrient-rich lawn care products as they grappled with potential changes to the city’s fertilizer ordinance.
Ugly algae blooms in city canals has raised political and public consciousness of fertilizer pollution.
Council members held a workshop session last week on whether stricter regulation, including extending the current June to September ban on use of phosphorus and nitrogen as fertilizer, is needed.
Proposals would include banning the use of phosphorus and increasing a no-chemical zone near canals from 10 feet to 15 feet.
The issue for city government appeared to be a tradeoff between adopting and enforcing rules and mounting an education campaign to teach people about the correct way to use fertilizers in pursuit of the greenest lawn on the street.
City government has grappled with the question of the impact of fertilizer that not only produces the coveted green lawns in the immensely sprawling suburb that is Cape Coral but also nourishes invasive plant life.
Councilmember Dan Sheppard suggested that limiting fertilizer use could hurt efforts to reduce pollution by restricting growth of grasses and plants that filter water headed toward the city’s extensive canal system.
“I don’t want to take the food away from the plant life,” Sheppard said. “We are looking at fertilizer as the boogie man. It’s not the boogie man. That’s nature’s way of cleaning the water, all that needs fertilizer, that’s nature’s way of cleaning the ground.”
Sheppard suggested education of residents must be a priority.
“That’s the best thing we can possibly do,” he said. “I do not think we should tie the hands of professionals who are licensed to do what they do.”
One of the algae bloom infestations in the city originated at a golf course, prompting some questions about whether rules should be stricter on those massive recreational lawns.
First-term councilmember Robert Welsh looked at golf courses as an easy, and perhaps incorrectly chosen, target for enforcement.
“We only have three golf courses in Cape Coral, so I really don’t see them as being the major problem for nutrients,” Welsh said. “We need to include them in the ordinance at some point, but to pinpoint them as the problem, I’d rather keep the three golf courses in Cape Coral that we have.”
Member John Gunter noted that with two recent incidents of pollution emanating from golf courses, they need to be included in the city fertilizer use ordinance.
“In my opinion, they should not be exempt. They are part of the problem so why do we want to establish a regulation and not incorporate the problem?” Gunter said. “We have to make sure the root of the problem is identified and corrected.”
Environmental Resources Manager Maya Robert briefed the council on the issue, including a reminder of the original purpose of rules on the use of nutrient-bearing products on bodies of water.
“The city has had an ordinance for 10 years; the city of Cape Coral is an impaired water body, there is a lot of nutrient in the waterways and we have to have an ordinance in place,” she said.
Later in the same discussion, Robert suggested attacking the problem at the source.
“The most efficient way to fight pollution of waterways is to prevent the nutrients from entering the waterways, and saving the city a lot of money,” Robert said.
The settling of nutrient-laden sediment to the bottom of canals was identified as an issue as well.
Mayor Joe Coviello said city work that got rid of accumulated sediment underwater has become limited.
“Years ago we had a program in our city where we should dredge sediment off the bottom of canals,” Coviello said. “In my knowledge, we don’t do that any more. We are dredging areas where navigation is an issue.”
He pushed for dredging to reduce the nutrient content of waterways.
Public Works Director Paul Clinghan said the dredging was initiated as an aid to navigation.
“Dredging nutrients on the bottom is something we have done but it was more related to navigation,” he said. “More of it is maintenance related.”
Coviello asked if the city ought to consider a phased program of canal dredging so a certain number of miles are done each year in the same manner that the city sets a timetable for repaving roads.
Studies of canal depth are underway to find locations with deeper pockets of sediments, many of which were stirred up in Hurricane Irma. Clinghan said keeping nutrients from getting into the canals is “the way to go.”
“Whether it is mechanical or a fertilizer ordinance, it all goes together,” Clinghan said.
The city is also looking into the extent to which homeowners’ use of reclaimed wastewater for irrigation is contributing to the problem and should be accounted for in fertilizer limits.
Coviello argued that Cape Coral’s immense system of canals may mean that time limits used elsewhere may never be the answer in an era when slow-release fertilizer is common.
“Maybe we need to be the first city to say, ‘We can’t use this stuff any more.’ Maybe we need to go to an alternative products as a way of keeping our lawns green and our trees fertilized that is not contributing to the pollution of our waterways,” the mayor said. “Are other products out there that people can be using or are we strictly stuck with these types of products?”
Robert noted the state limits local ordinances
“We are dealing with one of the biggest industries in the world,” Robert said. “I think the more complex you make an ordinance, the more difficult it is going to be for people and professionals to follow. Prevention costs less than fixing a problem.”
Ticking off a list of water issues in the region, Councilmember Tom Hayden urged colleagues to look at fertilizer rules in the context of the water quality issues facing the state.
“In totality, even a stronger fertilizer ordinance makes a difference,” Hayden said. “You have to look at that. The water quality issue isn’t going to be solved overnight.”