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Suncoast fertilizer ban inconvenient, but effective

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SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. -- Sarasota has endured eight years of fertilizer-free summers, and as we prepare for the ninth, residents who risked their landscape along the way can find comfort in the fact that the Sarasota Bay ecosystem is responding better than imagined.

"Most people think it's just the fertilizers that's the only way to go that's the only way to feed," says Rafael Maldonado, employee at Your Farm & Garden in Sarasota. He doesn't think Suncoast residents should sweat life without fertilizer.

Since 2007, Sarasota County has enforced a summer ban from June 1 through September 30 on fertilizer use, following a massive red tide scare in 2006.

"That stimulated a lot of interest in Nitrogen, particularly urea-based nitrogen which is a major component of fertilizer," says Sarasota Bay Estuary Program executive director Mark Alderson.

The majority of the Suncoast is part of what's called a watershed, meaning almost all rainwater runoff ends up in the same place.

In our case, that place is the Sarasota Bay.

When residents use fertilizers, especially during the summer, heavy rainfall carries most of those chemicals into their subsequent drainage systems, which all empty into the bay.

"During the rainy months, if you fertilize, you are going to potentially impact the bay," says Alderson.

High levels of nitrogen have the same effect on water as it does on land: it feeds algae growth, which keeps sunlight from reaching seagrass on the gulf floor, a major component to our marine ecosystem.

"Seagrasses are one of the bases of the food chain in Sarasota Bay, so if you want fish, you have to have seagrasses," explains Alderson. "They're key habitats in the whole cycle that creates the beautiful environment that we have out there today."

Alderson says the majority of the Bay's 46 percent Seagrass growth has occurred from 2007 to now.

"I personally think it's having an impact, I'm seeing changes in the landscapes and the yards throughout our region."

Maldonado thinks a healthy blend of the correct nutrients and vitamins can maintain a yard through the summer, and Alderson says the rain does the rest:

"We really don't need the nitrogen applications to the soils that we do in the winter, because we have a lot of naturally occurring nitrogen in the rainfall itself."

The Sarasota Bay hasn't had a red tide incident since 2006, and while it's difficult to say if that's a direct result of the ordinance, our community leaders don't see any reason to roll the dice and lift the ban anytime soon.