Legislation proposed at the statehouse would allow Iowa towns to control the chemicals that go on the lawns within their city limits. Ames assistant city manager, Bob Kindred, told legislators the law would allow the city to protect a popular lake which is also the city’s main backup supply of drinking water.
Kindred says phosphorus from lawn fertilizer at nearby homes is ending up in the lake, creating algae blooms and degrading the water — and so far the city has not convinced homeowners to cut back: Kindred says with no tools to require homeowners to cut back on fertilizer use, the city is "in a bind." Current Iowa law says cities can not pass restrictions on chemicals that are stricter than state law.
Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat from Ames filed the bill to address the issue. Quirmbach says the city has asked the legislature to create a small exception in the state code which currently prohibits any local regulation of fertilizer and soil conditioner. Quirmbach says that cities would not be forced to restrict chemicals, but could do so if they wish.
Lawmakers though, heard spirited opposition to the idea. Mona Bond represents the turfgrass industry, and says commercial lawn companies already use non-phosphorus fertilizers. Bond and other critics say there should be mandated setbacks from the water instead of limits on fertilizer.
Bond says: "How come the houses go right down to the lake front property? How much is it going to cost the city to send out the quote ‘phosphorus patrol’ to find out who is applying and who isn’t? How is it going to know that you went and bought it (fertilizer) at Lowe’s and put it on? "
Critics also question whether the phosphorus is coming from Ames lawns, or from nearby farms. Ames officials respond that tests show waterways become more polluted with phosphorus after they leave the countryside and make their way through town. Some of the bill’s most powerful critics are the Farm Bureau and the chemical companies who worry about it being applied to agriculture.
Brad Epperley, lobbies for Monsanto, and says if this bill becomes law, that could open the way for counties to say no to farm chemicals within their borders. Epperly says it’s not that they oppose the law, it that they’re concerned with "piecemeal legislation across the state that could have an impact on agriculture."
But Senator Quirmbach says the bill is about lawn chemicals, not agriculture. And besides, he says, cities won’t automatically jump into the fray. "The city council would have to be very careful in crafting any city ordinance to balance the desire of residents to have nice-looking lawns with the public health and safety," Quirmbach says.
The Iowa league of cities predicts Ames would not be the only city taking advantage of the bill if it becomes law. Meanwhile, the bill proceeds to an uncertain future in the Senate. Another Senate bill would go further, mandating limits on phosphorus fertilizers on lawns statewide.