By Jenny Vickers, Communications Coordinator, New Jersey Currents|online, Summer 2010
Like vitamins, nutrients are thought to be good for you, but too many can also make you sick. In New Jersey, our aquatic ecosystems are showing severe signs of stress from excessive nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which can come from many sources including synthetic fertilizers*, discharge from wastewater treatment plants, overflowing septic systems, and runoff from croplands and builtup areas.
The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers has increased steadily in the last 50 years by almost 20-fold to the current rate of 1 billion tons of nitrogen per year. Phosphate fertilizer use has also increased from 9 million tons to 40 million tons per year between 1960 and 2000.
Researchers have associated an excess of nitrates in drinking water with bladder cancer (2001 study in Epidemiology) and elevated risks of miscarriage for pregnant women and blue-baby syndrome (2001 study called "Toxic Fertility by Danielle Nierenberg of WorldWatch).
In addition, the increased use of nitrogen fertilizer, nitrous oxide (N2O), has resulted in it being the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. It has a global warming potential 296 times larger than an equal mass of carbon dioxide and it also contributes to stratospheric ozone depletion.
Nutrient pollution is the single major cause of pollution in New Jersey's waterways.
More than 65 percent of New Jersey's waterways are considered impaired or show signs of pollution from nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen. When these nutrients get into waterways they cause "eutrophication". This is when excessive algae growth uses up all of the oxygen in the water and leaves most aquatic life without enough oxygen to survive. The result can be massive fish kills and other harms. About half of all the lakes in the U.S. are now eutrophic, while the number of oceanic "dead zones" near inhabited coastlines (like the one in the Gulf of Mexico) are increasing. Climate change will only intensify the effects of nutrients as warmer water will enhance algal blooms.
New Jersey's coastal environment is showing the symptoms of over-enrichment, which impacts our valuable fisheries, threatens biodiversity, and makes our ecosystems less resilient to natural and human influences. Scientists warn that excessive nutrient pollution is leading to the death of Barnegat Bay, a 75-square mile area located in Ocean County. The bay is 1 of only 28 congressionally designated estuaries in the nation. Swift action is needed to save the bay.
Progress Made and Steps Needed to Reduce Nutrient Pollution
Last year, we helped stop a NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) proposal that would have weakened protections of our waterways and would have allowed for millions of gallons of additional pollution (specifically phosphorus) into our streams and rivers. In December 2009, the NJDEP dropped the controversial proposal.Instead, the state announced a revamped proposal that expands new nutrient protections to all New Jersey waterways, including coastal waters. This was a tremendous victory and critical step towards reducing nutrient pollution in New Jersey.
NJEF is currently working with the non-profit organization, Save Barnegat Bay, and other coalition partners to pass a policy that bans the use of phosphorus fertilizers in all of Ocean County. The policy would ban applications of fertilizer immediately before or during heavy rainfall and between December 1 and March 1. Additionally, it would restrict the use of fertilizers within 10 feet of a body of water. Of course, the policies provide some exceptions to the ban. For example, new lawns - which typically need additional nutrients for grass to take root.
While phosphate fertilizer reductions and bans are critical to the health of Barnegat Bay, they should be considered by every NJ community. These policies have been proven to reduce the amount of nutrient pollution levels in all kinds of waterways. A 2009 study done by Lake and Reservoir Management demonstrated that total phosphorus levels were reduced by 31 percent from 2007 to 2009, after Ann Arbor, MI banned the use of phosphorus fertilizers.
These policies not only reduce pollution loads, they also save money. A 2008 study by Kansas State University found that pollution of fresh water by nutrients costs government agencies, drinking water facilities and individual Americans at least $4.3 billion a year. The study also found that $44 million a year was spent just protecting aquatic species from nutrient pollution. Researchers used U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data on nitrogen and phosphorus levels in bodies of water throughout the country and calculated the money lost from that pollution by looking at factors like decreasing lakefront property values, the cost of treating drinking water and the revenue lost when fewer people take part in recreational activities like fishing or boating. This study was an important step in putting environmental problems in terms of dollars, which make policymakers take notice and allow for people to account for the actual costs of pollution.
* Synthetic fertilizer is often made with recycled steel industry wastes due to their high zinc content (which is essential to plant growth). Synthetic fertilizers may also contain herbicides, insecticides and heavy metals that can harm human and aquatic health. As a result, cadmium, uranium, lead, arsenic, chromium, and nickel, can eventually build up to unacceptable levels in soil and vegetable produce.
Find out what you can do to protect water from nutrient pollution and other organic lawn care tips.