New county hire vows tough enforcement of fertilizer regulations

County officials have followed through with their promise to hire a new stormwater education and fertilizer enforcement officer to help keep nitrogen and other harmful chemicals out of the Indian River Lagoon, and it seems like they picked the right person.

Alexis Thomas, who graduated last May from the University of South Florida with a degree in Environmental Science and went to work for the county in February, grew up here from the age of 3 and feels a deep personal connection to the scenic waterway that is the aesthetic and economic heart of our community.

“The lagoon is very important to me, which is why I am so excited I get to help it now,” says Thomas.

Her job is twofold: She will patrol the county to make sure strict fertilizer regulations passed by the county commission last summer are followed by homeowners and lawncare professionals; at the same time she is responsible for educating the public about the ordinance and storm water pollution in general.

The ordinance includes a complete ban on phosphorous and a four-month rainy-season blackout period that prohibits application of nitrogen from the beginning of June through the end of September, when heavy downpours are more likely to wash fertilizer into the lagoon. Nitrogen in fertilizer damages estuarine ecology by feeding algae blooms that cut off light and consume oxygen in the water column, smothering sea life.

The ordinance also mandates use of nitrogen that is at least 50-percent slow-release to reduce the amount of chemicals leeching into groundwater, prohibits application of fertilizer within 10 feet of waterways, and requires lawn-care professionals who apply fertilizer to take a state-regulated training course and be licensed.

“We are getting ready to start the fertilizer enforcement,” Thomas says. “I have been visiting retail stores like Home Depot and Lowes that sell fertilizer, making sure they are all aware this ordinance has passed and encouraging them to stock fertilizers that can be used during the rainy season.

“I sent out informational packets two weeks ago to all 600 lawn companies in the county to make sure they know the rules and are aware they have to take the certification course to apply fertilizer.

“We have citations being printed and soon I will be going around ticketing people who are violating the ordinance. They are going to see this little girl with a big smile on her face coming and not be too worried, but they aren’t going to be too happy afterward.”

The fine for using prohibited fertilizer or fertilizing too close to water will be $50; the fine for applying fertilizer as professional without the required certification will be $500.

“Everyone gets one warning,” Thomas says. “But it is one warning per company for all violations. If I warn one employee on Monday and then catch a second employee of the same company two days later, the second one is going to get the fine.”

In the fall, after the rainy season ban is over and less enforcement is required, Thomas plans to ramp up her general stormwater education program, visiting all the elementary schools to teach children about the harmful effects of stormwater pollution and show them ways they can help protect the environment.

“This is definitely my calling,” says Thomas. “It is where I was meant to be.”

Alexis Thomas introduces herself and explains the new fertilizer regulations here: http://player.vimeo.com/video/90164000

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