Public Lab Research note

Lawn Fertilizer Runoff Causes Algae Bloom Locally and Contributes to Global Issues

by Dave | January 02, 2020 19:24 02 Jan 19:24 | #22200 | #22200


Over application of fertilizer to lawns causes nutrient runoff into local ponds, lakes, streams, and rivers. This results in algee blooms that are damaging to the environment.

Our main concern:

Excess fertilizer runoff damages both local and regional water ways. The issue is wide spread and at the same time local. Water runoff from local lawns eventually flows into the Ohio River and from there contributes to algee blooms in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obstacles and supporting information:

Home owners have limited knowledge about this topic and even less ability to know what to do about this issue.

There are professional tests that can be conducted on soil to test levels of phosphorous and nitrogen. However, these are costly (about $20/sample) and directed mostly to professional farmers in the region.

Many homes have been built on soil that is high in clay which contributes to fertilizer runoff. Sometimes this is aggravated by local developers stripping the top surface layer of top soil off the land during the development process.

Who is engaged in this concern?

There are some efforts to educate farmers in the region. An example is here.

There are local businesses that offer organic fertilizer options for home owners and offer a limited supply of free soil test kits are part of their marketing techniques.

I do not know of any local non-profit resources directed at homeowners.

Manufacturers of home lawn fertilizer give specific directions for use on the label. But based on visual evidence the aggregate community over use of fertilizers is significant.

What are the initial questions?

Has anyone attempted to address this issue via Public Lab or similar?

What can be reapplied from similar topics?

Are there low cost citizen science sensors available to help measure and quantify the issue? If not, does anyone have ideas on how to develop a low cost sensor to measure phosphorus and/or nitrogen?


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The Great Lakes basin has a few nonprofits as well as water treatment utilities working with gardening groups and some county extension Master Gardener educators are beginning to address fertilizer runoff - here in MKE: MMSD Fresh Coast Guardians offers free workshops to both consumers and lawncare operators to address runoff, both fertilizer and road salt (workshops on safe snow removal to stop common practice of plowing excess roadway snows into ephemeral streams that flow straight into lakes)

in Chicago and around Lake Michigan: Midwest Grows Green
offers workshops on natural lawncare to reduce both fertilizer and pesticide loads

EPA grants have been given in the past to create low-cost sensors to track phosphate and nitrates in water - don't know what happened to this one: But the company link is still active: This sensor is is being tested in China:

To reduce phosphorus / nitrates, organic farming methods to redirect water and use cover crops instead of fertilizers are still cheapest and most effective:

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