Dear Northeast Florida Homeowner:
You seem like a nice, wholesome person. You read this amazing publication, so you’re probably smart and well-informed, too. Given your interest in all things hyper-local, you might eat organic, shop local and donate to numerous do-good local organizations every year. Heck, you might even volunteer your valuable time to pick up trash, mentor troubled kids or read to the elderly.
But you’re killing our river.
To be more specific, your lawn is killing our river.
I know you love the feeling of St. Augustine or Bahia or Bermuda or Centipede or Zoysia beneath your feet, that you take a peculiar pride in the lush green carpet of three-inch blades that flanks your house, that the sight of a single dollar weed poking its stubborn little head out of that manicured turf gives you heart palpitations.
Your lawn is still killing the river.
True, your lawn is only part of the St. Johns River’s pollution problem. Agriculture and industry have been, and continue to be, harming our river far more than any individual homeowner (or golf course) ever could.
The problem with lawns is that most everyone has one. And too few properly use fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Like angry rhetoric, the poison is in the dosage.
Every year, Americans dump astonishing quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer on their lawns.
Every time it rains, these pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers wash into the street, then into the stormwater system, and eventually end up in the river, where they wreak untold damage on aquatic vegetation and wildlife. And the harm doesn’t stop with the river; these substances can harm both ocean and human life.
Stormwater has such a serious impact on the river that the St. Johns River Water Management District reports that it “contributes the majority of the toxic trace metals — such as copper, lead and cadmium — that enter Florida waters and the lower St. Johns River.”
Before you ask, “Toxic trace metals? I thought we were talking about lawns,” you should know that some synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides and insecticides are created from recycled hazardous industrial wastes. In a summary of the report he co-authored, Waste Lands: the Threat of Toxic Fertilizer, toxics policy advocate Matthew Shaffer writes, “The recycling of hazardous industrial wastes into fertilizers introduces several dozen toxic metals and chemicals into the nation’s farm, lawn and garden soils, including such well-known toxic substances as lead and mercury.” These toxic substances leach into groundwater, run off into stormwater systems, and end up in the river, where they are absorbed into the bodies of microorganisms, which are ingested by larger and larger organisms on up the food chain. Disproportionately concentrated doses of these substances ultimately find their way into predators, including humans, through a process called bioaccumulation.
So not only is your lawn killing the river; it’s killing the ospreys and the herons and your neighbors (which could be a good or bad thing, depending on their penchant for walking around nude with the windows open).
But it’s not too late to change. If you can bear a little diversity of species, stop using herbicides. Better yet, follow the St. Johns Riverkeeper’s advice: “Do not buy fertilizers that contain weed killers.” Consider it a bonus that those weeds that so annoy you are probably flowers that haven’t been given a chance to grow.
If you must fertilize – and I suggest that you do not – do so sparingly. Pay strict attention to the guidelines on how much you need to use per square foot, don’t fertilize before a rainstorm, and do so only twice a year at most.
And insecticides? Insecticides are basically just poison, y’all. And that poison doesn’t get in just our river, it gets in your house, it gets in your pets, and it gets in our air.
If you really, really want to help our river, convert your carpet of monochromatic grass into a “Florida lawn.” A Florida lawn has grass, but also has daisies and pink purslane and dandelions (P.S.: You can make wine from dandelions!) and dollar weed, which is actually edible, and all sorts of other beautiful, interesting species that will provide homes and sustenance for the butterflies, birds and bees that share our habitat. Because it’s not just about our river, it’s about our planet. And your lawn is killing our planet. But it doesn’t have to.
*Correction: a previous version of this incorrectly stated that Matthew Shaffer wrote a book; Shaffer co-authored a report of the same name