Nutrients and chemicals are ending up in our waters and it's causing major problems for the environment, recreation, and tourism. And you can do something about it; so read on to learn more.
In order to maintain a well manicured lawn on a typical lot which often has little of its original top soil remaining, homeowners typically end up feeling pressure to apply a variety of products to their yard including: nitrogen, phosphorous, herbicides, and insecticides. The nitrogen and phosphorous are things which can occur naturally and are things which encourage plant growth (fertilizer). The insecticides and herbicides are chemicals which are used to control pests (pesticides).
Fertilizers may come from a number of sources. Garden shops carry additives which can be added to water, plant food spikes, compounds to be applied by hand or machine, or even mixed in with your soil or sod. They also occur naturally and are found in organic matter like pet waste. Often times these supplements must be applied regularly because the soil itself isn't healthy enough and does not contain the necessary nutrients for the well manicured lawn to thrive.
Fertilizers however have a downstream affect. They rarely stay in your yard. Runoff from rain carries this material into our streams, ponds, and lakes. It then becomes fuel for algae and bacteria. This leads to algae blooms which can making swimming water unsafe, make water unfit for consumption, and depletes the oxygen in the water leading to dead zones and fish die offs. Just run a Google search on "Lake Erie Algae Blooms" and you'll find a supersized example of what fertilizers in run off can do.
Here's the good news. Things don't have to be this way. Instead of planting a monoculture of grass in your yard, you can plant native trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, legumes (they put nitrogen back into the soil). Typically native plants don't need chemical maintenance to stay healthy. Many native plants have deep spreading root systems which not only to help them obtain their necessary nutrition, they also allow for greater water infiltration allowing the soil to collect nitrogen and phosphorous from the run off. (Also you should remember to clean up after your pet.)
Pesticides are chemicals used to prevent the growth of weeds or to suppress insect populations. Here's where our yard really stands out in the neighborhood. There are just a few houses in the neighborhood which do not pay for lawn treatments they are most obvious in May and June when the Violets, Creeping Charlie, and Dandelions are in bloom. Our yard is yellow and purple meadow while others have green lawns. These chemicals are potentially hazardous to your pets, children, and yourself (hence the flag that says stay out of the yard for 24 hours). These chemicals also end up in our water system and may suppress desirable plant and aquatic animal growth.
The use of these chemicals is a choice. In a future where they are not used, our lawns are more colorful and support a variety of wildflowers, bees, and butterflies. Birds and toads too need chemical free spaces for hunting grubs and insects, or for birds collecting dandelion fluff.
Keeping Wisconsin's waterways healthy is a major challenge. The UW Arboretum has a webpage dedicated to the challenges faced by the Lake Wingra watershed. The challenges highlighted are true of many bodies of water in the state. These waters are essential part of the states sporting, hunting, and fishing cultures, as well as being a source of tourism revenue.
If you think your yard doesn't matter or that your run-off is somehow not affected, consider this example. Each of us live in some watershed, and water is always seeking the lowest point. Many of our neighborhoods have retention ponds. The retention ponds in the Upper Sugar River Watershed eventually deposit water into the Sugar River. The Sugar River is dammed in Bellville to form Lake Belle View. Water leaving the lake runs back through the Sugar River to the Pecatonica, to the Rock River, and into the Mississippi. Eventually remaining chemicals and nutrients unnatural the water are dumped into the Gulf Mexico and creates one of the biggest coastal dead zones in the world.
If each of one of us changed how we treat our lawns, even just a little it could be make a major difference in the amount of nutrients and chemicals ending in these waterways.