Saving the bay one lawn at a time?

Could federal regulation of lawn fertilizers be on the way?

Obama administration officials are tightlipped about the laundry list of ideas they've come up with for jump-starting the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay. Draft reports are due to be released on Wednesday -- the first step in fulfilling President Obama's May executive order directing federal agencies to take the lead in pushing for more progress in the long-running bay cleanup.


One Environmental Protection Agency official did hint last week, though, that rules on lawn care in the bay region may be among the ideas floated.

Speaking to a lunchtime gathering of lawyers in Washington, J. Charles Fox, special adviser on the bay to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, pointed out that polluted stormwater runoff from urban and suburban areas is an increasing threat to the bay.


Then Fox brought up home use of lawn fertilizers, whether do-it-yourself applications of products bought from Home Depot or Lowe's or lawn-care services.

"We are going to have to look at this," he said, adding that "today we have more turf grass in the watershed than we do corn."

A few years back, bay area states got fertlizer manufacturers voluntarily to agree to halve the amount of  phosphorus used in lawn-care products in the region.  But the regulatory screws have tightened even more here in Maryland. The city of Annapolis this year banned lawn fertlizers containing phosphorus, while the General Assembly barred the sale of anything but low-phosphorus fertilizer for use on lawns by April 2011. Lawn care sevices and lawn startups were exempted from the state decree, however.

Fox also suggested, without going into specifics, that there would be proposals for curtailing farm pollution. Though farmers have reduced runoff of chemical fertilizers and animal manure, Fox said, agriculture remains in the crosshairs because it is still the source of roughly half the nutrients and sediment fouling the bay.

The EPA adviser's remarks came during a panel discussion co-sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute and the District of Columbia bar association. At a "town hall" meeting last month with environmentalists in Annapolis, Fox said that "we have to look at game-changing solutions," since the bay has shown only modest improvement despite billions spent on cleanup over the past 26 years.

Environmentalists and others are anxious to see if the feds do propose truly dramatic changes from the lagging status quo. Roy Hoagland, a vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the draft reports due tomorrow "the first test" of the Obama administration's commitment to restoring the bay.

Those ideas, once floated, are to be boiled down into a proposed federal bay cleanup strategy by December, which would be formally adopted in May after the public has an opportunity to comment on it.   For background on the reports, go here.