Algae blooms kill fish in the Spokane River, especially at Long Lake, because it robs them of oxygen. To combat this, the state has banned phosphates in dishwasher soap and laundry detergent, because the chemical additive promotes algae growth.
However, a potentially bigger source of phosphates has not been addressed until now. Most commercial lawn fertilizers contain phosphorus, and the run-off goes directly into streams and rivers. Unlike dishwasher and laundry detergent, this source is typically not filtered first.
Last year, a bill was crafted to limit the use of phosphorus-laden fertilizers, but it didn’t pass. State Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and Sen. Scott White, D-Seattle, have revived the idea with companion bills that would curtail the sale of phosphorus for use on established lawns, which don’t need its root-building qualities. Under the bill, non-phosphorus fertilizers, which are readily available, would be the default selection on store shelves. People who needed phosphorus for agricultural crops or new lawns could still buy it, but they’d have to ask for it and demonstrate a need.
Eight other states have some sort of “clean fertilizer” law. Minnesota’s has been in place for several years, without a public outcry. Most people buy their bags and don’t notice the difference. This isn’t like the dishwasher debate, where people claim to get worse results, which triggers across-the-border purchases.
What is missing, however, are definitive measurements on whether the laws have made an appreciable difference in the health of rivers and lakes. Minnesota can show that it has triggered a widespread conversion to the desired fertilizer, but the state has not financed a follow-up study on the effects. A Michigan study showed that waters near Ann Arbor experienced a 28 percent decline in phosphorus, but researchers were not able to conclude with certainty whether the new limit or other measures, such as public education campaigns and enhanced buffers between farms and waterways, were responsible.
It’s this same uncertainty that clouds efforts to curtail the phosphate loading from on-the-river sources, such as the city of Spokane and Inland Empire Paper, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review. If these dischargers could do the impossible and remove all phosphates, would the regulatory standard be met? What are all the sources? How much do they contribute? The headwaters of Latah Creek, a prime phosphate-delivery suspect, are in Idaho. How much phosphate is in the creek before it crosses into Washington?
It makes sense to address all sources, and lawn fertilizer is certainly one. A little phosphate goes a long way in creating algae blooms. But farms and organic fertilizers are sources, too. The state and Spokane County have gotten federal money to improve buffers between farms and ranches and Latah Creek, so that’s a positive step.
We’d like to see follow-up studies on whether all of these limitations are making a difference, and a sunset provision that gives the bill a few years to prove itself or go away. On those conditions, the measure deserves a chance.