Citing the need to help clean up the Chesapeake, Annapolis in January became the first municipality in the Bay watershed to ban most uses of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus. The ban takes effect this year.

"We're leading the way," said Alderman Julie Stankivic, who proposed the ordinance, which was unanimously approved by the City Council.

She said the ordinance will help to ensure that homeowners do their part to reduce nutrient pollution that contributes to the degradation of the Bay.

Urban areas generate a relatively small amount of the nutrients reaching the Chesapeake, but their contribution is increasing while the nutrient load from other sources is generally decreasing.

"The dead zones are growing," Stankivic said. "We have to take individual responsibility for what we can do to improve the Bay. It's not just chicken farmers."

Beginning this year, the ordinance requires residents to have a soil test taken within the last three years indicating their soil has lower concentrations of phosphorus than recommended by lawn care experts before they can use fertilizer with phosphorus.

Newly established lawns are also exempt from the ban-phosphorus is needed by new lawns to help grass develop roots, but the nutrient is rarely needed by established lawns, which primarily use nitrogen to grow.

"Most soils in Maryland have more than enough phosphorus in them already," Stankivic said. "So if you can pick up something that has zero, it will do no harm."

Too much phosphorus can spur excess algae growth in lakes, freshwater streams and rivers, as well as lower salinity portions of the Chesapeake Bay. Nitrogen is generally more responsible for algae growth in higher salinity water.

Excess algae can block sunlight to underwater grass beds, which provide important habitat for crabs and fish. When the algae die, they decompose in a process that depletes oxygen from the water.

Landowners are still allowed to use compost, which may contain phosphorus, and they may continue to use fertilizer containing phosphorus in gardens, on shrubs and trees or on indoor plants.

The handful of stores in Annapolis that sell fertilizer must display a poster alerting customers to the ordinance.

Starting next year, no business can openly display fertilizer that contains phosphorus, although they may post signs that it is available upon request. Store-owners are not required to quiz buyers about how they intend to use the fertilizer. "We are not expecting our retailers to act like police," Stankivic said.

Such bans are not unique. A number of local governments across the nation have enacted similar bans, including Dane County, Wisconsin, and several counties in Michigan. Others are considering similar action.

Minnesota enacted a statewide ban in 2005, a year after Minneapolis and St. Paul took action. As with the Annapolis ordinance, the Minnesota law prohibited the use of phosphorus fertilizer unless a new lawn is being established, or a soil test indicates the need for phosphorus.

As a result, the amount of phosphorus used in lawn fertilizer in the state decreased from 292 tons in 2003 to 151 tons in 2006, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The report found that consumers were largely supportive of the measure. In fact, the major consumer question regarding the measure was how to dispose of leftover fertilizer that contained phosphorus.

The report also said that the reduction was achieved without municipalities having to take any enforcement actions.

That's good news for Annapolis officials, who acknowledge that enforcing the law would be difficult. Residents can easily purchase fertilizer outside city limits, and it's hard to know whether fertilizer is being misused.

Residents who violate the ordinance could face a $100 fine, and businesses could pay $500, but officials doubt they will have many violations.

"It's not our intention to turn ourselves into fertilizer police," said Frank Biba, the city's chief of environmental programs. "I would expect people who pay attention to easily be able to comply with this. It is not onerous by any means. I would think if it is not displayed openly in stores, people would just buy what is there. That's simple."

The ordinance, in a way, is aimed as much at other local governments as it is Annapolis residents.

"Obviously, we alone are not going to have a substantial impact on the Bay," Stankivic said. "It will be minimal. But if we can get all counties, at least those that lie along the Chesapeake Bay, to adopt this policy, I think we will see a much greater impact."

Stankivic said she has urged officials in Anne Arundel County, where Annapolis is located, to pass a similar ban, and is hoping the General Assembly will establish a statewide prohibition. The main hesitation, she said, is a reluctance by officials to tell landowners what to do.

"But would you tell someone to take penicillin if they didn't need it?" she asked.

There is precedent for state actions that require less phosphorus use. In the mid-1980s, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania each enacted laws to ban the sale of laundry detergent with phosphates. More recently, they have passed legislation that will ban the sale of dishwasher detergent with phosphates next year.

In recent years, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Wisconsin have all considered regulating the use of phosphorus fertilizer on lawns.

Annapolis Lawn Fertilizer Ordinance

  • As of Jan. 1, 2009, businesses selling fertilizer must display a sign informing customers of the new regulations.
  • The ban affects lawn fertilizer used for nonagricultural purposes such as lawns, golf courses, parks and cemeteries.
  • The ban does not affect fertilizer products primarily intended for gardening, trees, shrubs or indoor plants. Fertilizer containing phosphorus may continue to be used for those purposes.
  • No fertilizer containing phosphorus may be applied when the ground is frozen.
  • Any fertilizer accidentally applied or spilled onto impervious surfaces such as roads, sidewalks and parking lots must be immediately contained and cleaned up.
  • Newly established lawns, or lawns which have had soil tests in the last three years showing phosphorus levels are deficient according to standards set by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, may use fertilizers containing phosphorus.
  • Yard waste compost or similar materials that are primarily organic may continue to be applied to lawns.
  • As of Jan. 1, 2010, no one may display for sale any lawn fertilizer that contains more than 0 percent phosphorus, or any compound containing phosphorus, such as phosphate.
  • Lawn fertilizer that contains more than 0 percent phosphorus may be stored off the sales floor and sold on request. Signs may state the fertilizer is available upon request.