Phosphorus: Threatening Indiana’s Water From Lawn To Lake
Phosphorus is a naturally-occurring nutrient used by plants. Though plants need phosphorus to grow, they only need a small amount. Here in Indiana, most lawns have more than enough phosphorus for healthy growth.
Excess phosphorus runs off into local streams, waterways, and rivers. Once in the water, this nutrient can promote algal blooms or undesirable surpluses of algae growth, which make habitats unsustainable for many species. Blooms cause water quality to decline by blocking sunlight, reducing water oxygen levels, and disrupting food chains. Without proper living conditions, less species survive, and biodiversity decreases.
You can help address these problems by using a phosphorus-free lawn fertilizer. Use phosphorus-free lawn fertilizer to help conserve local habitats, support biodiversity, and improve Indiana’s water quality!
When in doubt, follow the Four Rs:
1. Right product
2. Right rate
3. Right place
4. Right time
Five Ways to ‘Green’ Your Lawn and Garden Care: Check out these tips on how to make sustainable, water-friendly choices in your own backyard. (Adapted from the Nature Conservancy).
1. Use Less Fertilizer
Excess fertilizer flows off your lawn and garden and ends up in nearby rivers, and lakes and eventually make its way to the sea. If you must use fertilizer, get a soil test first. Find out what your lawn needs. Use only what you need, and make sure it stays on the lawn. If you spill some on the sidewalk, sweep it up. Many lawns don’t need phosphorus, for example, so phosphorus-free fertilizers might just work for you. And only use it when the lawn is growing. Remember that any kind of fertilizer, organic or chemical, can be over-used.
2. Slow Your Runoff
We all want to keep our properties from flooding, but when all the water washes off city streets and our rooftops and yards, it carries a lot of nutrients and sediment with it. These materials can be harmlessly processed by the soils and plants on your property, but in a lake or river they can cause real problems. To slow that water down, don’t cut your grass along a creek or drainage swale. Better yet, replace grass with native plants that will bind the soil and slow down the water.
Or maybe create a water garden, which is both functional—it holds and slows down stormwater—and an attractive landscaping feature. Wildlife will love the new habitat space and so will you; the benefits include less money spent on fertilizer, less time spent mowing, and less use of pesticides. The Hoosier Heartland Resource Conservation and Development has a step-by-step colorful guide for rain gardens explaining how to select your location, test your soil, select native species, and more.
You might also consider buying (or creating!) a rain barrel for the water coming off your roof. The rain in the barrel can then be used to water your gardens and lower your water bill.
Another innovative solution to conserving water is green roofs. Vegetated green roofs have multiple advantages. Green roofs diminish the effect of “heat islands” or localized areas of especially warm temperatures. Heat from these "islands" can contribute to an increase in water temperatures, affecting wildlife species’ metabolism and reproduction. Other benefits of green roofs include reductions in energy use, air pollution from emissions, and human health risks.
You can find excellent examples of green roofs around the state. The Nature Conservancy’s Indianapolis office installed a vegetated green roof, covering the 7,500 sq. ft. area with a mix of sedum. During storms, the water not used by the vegetation is collected in a 2,500 gallon cistern, reducing the building’s water use by 83%. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis and Minnetrista, cultural center in Muncie have also created green roofs.
The Nature Conservancy has created a neat, informative infographic of how much water is typically used by the everyday American. It might surprise you to know how water is used in the production of food, clothes, and energy, and helps make it clear why conserving water is so important!
3. Create Less Waste
Grass clippings are high in nutrients so you want to keep them out of the water. Often, mulching your grass clippings can help reduce the need for fertilizer. And it’s good to keep the nutrient-rich grass clippings and leaves out of storm drains and of ditches. Cutting your lawn high (3-4 inches) also increases its vigor, shades out unwanted weeds, and requires less water. In Turf Tips, Purdue's Dept. of Agronomy suggests mulching fallen leaves, instead of raking and bagging them, can enrich soil. Make it easy on yourself this fall by chopping up your leaves with your lawn mower.
Additionally, consider composting. Nutrient recycling helps establish rich, dark soil by replenishing necessary plant nutrients. You can recycle nutrients by returning grass clippings to the lawn and using fallen leaves as mulch and by composting throughout the year.
Composting helps restore healthy soil structure, remove toxic substances in sediment, decrease soil erosion, prevent diseases in plants, reduce use of chemical fertilizers, and reduce lawn care expenses.
Composting results in less waste shipped to landfills, and it can become a good source of fertilizer for landowners, farmers, and the public sector. Learn more about the science behind composting, what should be added to compost, and how to use compost at the EPA website and Recycle Indiana.
4. Use Native Plants
In general, using more native plants that are right for your part of the world reduces the need for fertilizers, pesticides and watering. Replace some of your lawn with wildflower gardens, for example.
If you have a lake or retention pond on your land, consider installing a buffer of native plants around the water to reduce your maintenance and fertilizer costs. The conventional practice of maintaining turf grass to the shore has adverse impacts on water quality and aquatic wildlife, often resulting in eutrophic conditions. Native plants will help to stabilize the bank along the water edge, filter out chemical toxins, and provide quality habitat for wildlife. The Indiana Lakes Management Society describes this activity as lakescaping.
If you are interested in purchasing native plants, visit our shop and buy them through IWF!
5. Buy Sustainable
Although home lawn care can play a significant role in keeping fresh water clean, you can also help promote healthy land and water with your food choices: what you buy, when you buy it, and the producers you support with your purchases. You can make choices about food that support the kind of farmers who work to minimize water pollution. Organic farms, for example, don’t use chemical fertilizers and are required to demonstrate that they are protecting their watershed.
They can do it, so can you! Read about how Engledow Group uses sustainable lawn care techniques at its office. They have great ideas anyone can use at home or on an office property.
Test Your Soil
Remember to test your lawn before you apply fertilizer!
These lawn care providers supply environmentally-friendly fertilizers. Hoosiers in central Indiana can visit these suppliers. (Lists provided by Hamilton Co. SWCD.)
These companies will test your soil for you:
Manley Finish Grading Inc.
Pro Care Horticultural Services
Mail soil samples to these labs:
Patriot Engineering & Environmental Co.
Mowers Soil Testing Plus, Inc.
Ingram’s Soil Testing Center
A&L Great Lakes Labs
Brookside Farms Lab
Many states and communities have successfully restricted phosphorus:
Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM)
Watersheds: This website gives a good reference for IDEM’s work with watersheds, such as the Indiana Nonpoint Source Management Plan and their concerns.
Algae: This government agency publishes recent health concerns with algae and presentations on the problems of algal blooms. This website is useful for understanding the state's perspective on phosphorus in our ecosystems.
Stop the Rubber Duckies: Go here for lots of great information about nonpoint source water pollution.
Download IDEM's Know Your Numbers fact sheet about chemicals in fertilizers.
Indiana Lakes Management Society, ILMS
The ILMS website provides news updates and information concerning Indiana Lakes. This group works to conserve lakes along with the surrounding natural habitats through management, policy, and restoration efforts.
CEES's website contains information on Eagle Creek Watershed Alliance (ECWA) and the Upper White River Watershed Alliance (UWRWA) in addition to the work by IUPUI.
CEES carefully studies algae and its correlation to nutrient pollution in Indiana. The group has focused much of its research on how phosphorus affects water quality and algae growth. Visit the CEES website for updates and information on water quality issues in Central Indiana.
Purdue's Dept. of Agronomy
Purdue's scientists have developed many projects examining turfgrass and Indiana soils. By studying local soil samples, researchers have determined that the majority of Indiana lawns do not require supplemental phosphorus. As part of Purdue’s Turfgrass Program, this website has several publications with lawn care information. Refer to this information before you fertilize your lawn.
Check out their great new Turfgrass Management factsheet: Facts about Phosphorus and Lawns
Indiana Clean Lakes Program
The Indiana Clean Lakes Program has been assessing phosphorus concentrations and consequences in Indiana’s waters for over 20 years.Check current and past phosphorus concentrations on virtually all public lakes in Indiana, or read summaries of statewide conditions over the years.
Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District
Hamilton Co. SWCD has numerous fact sheets on Backyard Conservation, including helpful techniques for developing rain gardens, controlling undesirable species in your yard, or even managing your lawn's nutrients.
As water is treated and transported through our neighborhoods in Central Indiana, Citizens Water works to establish the best quality of water possible and ensure compliance with U.S. EPA guidelines. Use this website to learn about simple water conservation techniques.
Lawn Reform Coalition
Learn about environmentally-friendly techniques for establishing lawns and the basic needs of a lawn. By establishing the essentials in lawn care, one can begin to redesign a normal grass lawn.
USDA NRCS, Backyard Conservation
Here, NRCS provides recommendations for a number of conservation practices including mulching, nutrient management, water conservation, planting trees, etc. Implementing these suggestions can help restore an area and make it attractive to wildlife.