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Opinion: The "Fertilizer Law," Landmark Legislation or Politics as Usual?

One of the things that make this new law so tough is that it forces us to look at our irresponsible behavior.

The much ballyhooed passage of a package of legislation to restore Barnegat Bay has been heralded by some as an ecological milestone. Others have pilloried it as a cynical political gesture that will have little impact.

So are we talking landmark legislation or politics as usual?

The best way to answer that question is by taking a closer look at one piece of the package, the law that regulates the composition and application of fertilizers on suburban laws throughout the Garden State.

The new legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and recently signed by Governor Chris Christie, is commonly referred to as the "Fertilizer Law." It establishes best-management practices that prohibit the application of fertilizers on lawns before heavy rains or when the ground is frozen; require modest no-fertilizer buffers along waterways; limit the phosphorous content and require at least 20 percent slow-release nitrogen content in lawn fertilizers; and set up a new professional fertilizer application certification program.

Supporters of the law have touted it as the toughest fertilizer regulation in the nation, and a huge step forward in addressing non-point source pollution (pollution that does not originate from a single place, such as a discharge pipe). And Christie, in a number of press releases, trumpeted his support of this legislation as part of his 10-point plan to save Barnegat Bay, and thus satisfy one of his campaign pledges.

But naysayers point out that the law does not apply to golf courses or farms, and that very few people apply fertilizer in the winter when the ground is frozen. They also note, correctly, that many lawn fertilizers already on the market meet the 20 percent slow-release nitrogen standard.

Further, it is entirely possible that suburbanites obsessed with green lawns will simply use more bags of fertilizer if we lower the nitrogen content (since this is largely what produces the rich, dark-green color).

Still, by any objective standard, our new Fertilizer Law is indeed the toughest in the nation. It's not merely a matter of individual requirements. Taken together, however, the various components of the law address one of the few unregulated or under-regulated aspects of life in the Garden State -- residential sources of non-point pollution.

The law clearly mandates some common-sense behaviors, like not fertilizing your lawn before a monsoon rain, leaving an unfertilized buffer along waterways, and encouraging a higher level of professionalism in the application of fertilizers. Unfortunately, these considerations are altogether too uncommon in our densely populated state.

It's an equally big step forward to ban the use of fertilizers that contain too little slow-release nitrogen or too much phosphorous. That both helps out responsible manufacturers and users who already comply and makes it just a tad more difficult for those who don’t give a damn about the environment--as long as their product sells or their lawn is the greenest in the neighborhood.

True, golf courses and farms can also be sources of non-point pollution. But best-management practices are already common for both, along with water-friendly certification programs, so we have already made some progress on those fronts outside the scope of this legislation.

The fact of the matter, though, is that we have (somewhat understandably) been so busy focusing our environmental regulations for the last 40 years on the obvious -- smokestacks and pipes that pour pollutants into our air and water -- that we have essentially given ourselves a free pass in our daily lives. That's why non-point source pollution remains one of the most challenging ecological issues we face today.

Perhaps the very best aspect of this new law is the fact that it makes us think about the connection between our green lawns and the health of our waterways. The same holds for larger questions, such as the duty each one of us has to behave responsibly toward our environment.

So for my money, Christie and the legislature do deserve kudos for passing the Fertilizer Law. This does not mean the law is a panacea or that we can relax standards in other areas. But it is clear that the legislation is indeed a landmark development in the continuing efforts to preserve and enhance all of our waterways and to encourage each one of us to do our part in protecting our environment.

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