One of the most important natural resources we have is the numerous bodies of water in our area, such as lakes, streams, rivers, wetlands and groundwater. Protecting these resources is vital in maintaining the environmental health of the community, with a continually growing population. Water pollution originates from many sources including fertilizers and pesticides used on home lawns and gardens, organic yard wastes, such as leaves and grass clippings, and eroded soil. The recent heavy rains have increased the likelihood of these pollutants being washed into bodies of water and causing contamination.
Fertilizers, especially their nitrogen and phosphorus components, need to be applied in ways that prevent their entry into waterways. They can stimulate the growth of algae that shades other plant material and depletes the water of oxygen, thus killing fish and other aquatic wildlife. Fertilizers, along with other pollutants, enter bodies of water through leaching into groundwater and by runoff caused by rain or irrigation that wash down banks or storm drains.
To reduce the likelihood of fertilizers contaminating the water, apply only the recommended amount for your lawn and landscape plants. Most established healthy trees and shrubs require fertilization only once every two to three years. Fertilizer should never be applied to dormant warm season grasses during the winter. Have your soil tested for pH and several key nutrients through Gwinnett County Extension. Apply the amount of fertilizer recommended by the soil test. Clean up any fertilizer that gets on paved areas and avoid getting any in storm drains.
When applying pesticides, make sure you thoroughly read and understand the label directions and apply only the amount listed on the label. In some cases, pest levels are low enough to avoid the application of chemical herbicides. Alternative control methods can be used to control plant material. When making fertilizer or herbicide applications, keep them away from any bodies of water, off paved areas and away from storm drains. Always fill up and clean out sprayers and other application equipment well away from these areas and pathways to them. Never pour pesticides down storm drains, sewer pipes, sinks or toilets. Dispose of empty pesticide containers according to label directions.
Avoid allowing grass clippings, leaves or other plant debris to get into the streets, drains or into drainage ditches where they could reach waterways. When organic debris gets in bodies of water, it begins to decay, thus reducing oxygen levels in the water, which harms fish and other aquatic organisms. When mowing your lawn, let the grass clippings fall back to the ground instead of bagging them because they are beneficial since they are a natural source of fertilizer for the lawn. Some mowers are designed to mulch the clippings during mowing. Mow your grass at the maximum recommended height. Compost plant wastes or put them in the appropriate bags for curbside pickup.
Any areas of the yard that have exposed soil, such as areas where landscaping or construction is occurring should be covered with vegetation, mulch or other erosion control measures such as silt fences. Rainfall can cause erosion, and the resulting sediment could find its way into bodies of water. This can reduce water oxygen levels, shade out aquatic plants and carry pollutants with it.
You do not have to choose between having an attractive home landscape and protecting water quality. Both goals can be achieved by using chemical pesticides properly and only when needed, managing the application of fertilizers and keeping organic wastes out of the water drainage system.
Timothy Daly is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.