In an effort to prevent igniting harmful algal blooms in local waters, Islamorada village officials are beginning to discuss an ordinance that would limit application during the rainy season of fertilizers containing two key nutrients.

Councilman Ken Davis took a moment during the April 4 council meeting to discuss an ordinance the city of Sanibel enacted after suffering an economic hit due to the emergence of harmful algal blooms — with tens of millions lost in area revenue and $4 million in tax base. While blooms were emerging, the city’s own use and abuse of fertilizers helped feed the fire.

“Everyone was canceling reservations and restaurants were closing. It was devastating,” Davis said.

Sanibel’s ordinance regulates applicators of fertilizer within the city from July 1 to Sept. 30. Specifically, it bans use of fertilizer with more than 2% phosphorus or 20% nitrogen during that period. The Sanibel ordinance also provides a buffer zone so no fertilizer can be applied within 25 feet of the water.

Davis turned to some landscapers in the field to get their take, one being licensed horticulturist and Islamorada resident Hilary Whitehouse. Owner of Model Pest Control, Whitehouse told council members the ordinance would be “great for the village.”

Whitehouse said there are three major elements in fertilizer: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Of those, nitrogen and phosphorus are the most readily available nutrients that will leach very quickly into the soil. As rains come in, nutrients end up flowing into the water and help feed harmful algal blooms. Whitehouse said applying the right fertilizer at the right time of the year is critical.

“We never hit a full dormancy period; we’re growing all year long,” Whitehouse said. “Here, we’ve got companies who are out applying nitrogen and phosphorus, (which are) to make things grow and to make things green. It’s unnecessary to make things grow when things are already growing.”

Kelly Cox, counsel and program director for Miami Waterkeeper, a Miami-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the watershed though advocacy, also spoke in favor of a fertilizer application ordinance. Cox reached out to council members regarding water quality issues and solutions, one being a fertilizer application ban. A Plantation Key resident, Cox said she’s grateful the village is considering an ordinance.

“Water quality is innately connected not only to the cultural heritage of Islamorada, but also to the economic vitality of this area,” she said. “It’s obvious it’s at the forefront of your minds.”

Davis asked village staff to come up with an ordinance so it could be adopted. Ty Harris, village planning director, said it could be added to the landscaping code.

“That would be the most appropriate and we’ll put it into our list of code re-writes,” he said.

Language on a fertilizer ordinance will be brought back to council once written. Whitehouse said her company is already compliant, applying no nitrogen or phosphorus.

“I hope all the Keys take this on,” she said.

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