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This canal branching off the Weeki Wachee River into Weeki Wachee Shores is one of many connected to the river. Protecting waterways like the Weeki Wachee from nitrogen pollution is just one of the reasons behind the countywide ban on lawn fertilizing from Jan. 1 until the end of March.

SPRING HILL — Spring is coming, but it’s not here yet, so no need to fertilize the lawn.

In fact, if you do, you could be in violation of a Hernando County ordinance and face fines.

Now in its fifth year, the rule forbids homeowners from applying fertilizer to their lawns from Jan. 1 to March 31. It was passed in response to concerns that too much nitrogen from fertilizers was polluting ground water and natural resources, like the Weeki Wachee River and other bodies of water.

Virginia Singer, Hernando County public information officer, said bulletins reminding people of the ban began going out at the end of December.

The law isn’t draconian, in any way, said William Lester, a plant medicine scientist with the UF/IFAS Extension in Hernando County. It makes sense because lawns can’t benefit from fertilizer during the ban period, he said.

“It’s kind of wasting your money anyway,” Lester said, since turf grass in the Hernando County region is in a dormant state through the end of March and can’t absorb nutrients. That means fertilizer spread during the period ends up making its way into the water by leeching underground or washing into lakes, rivers and streams.

Lester explained that the excess nitrogen and phosphorous can cause algae blooms like the ones that plagued South Florida last year. The massive blooms choke out dissolved oxygen, harming fish and the ecosystem.

Lester said there is an allowance in the law that permits licensed professionals to fertilize lawns during the ban period. They must, however, apply a slow-release fertilizer, which is far less likely to migrate into water sources.

However, “The reality is a professional wouldn’t have any reason” to fertilize during the period, Lester added.

Since the ordinance was passed, stricter guidelines for fertilizer use have been imposed by state regulators, Lester said.

“Hernando was actually ahead of the curve,” he said.

Pinellas County also has a fertilizer ban. It, however, bars the sale and use of fertilizer during the summer rainy season, from June 1 until Sept. 30, to lessen the contamination of peninsular county’s aquatic environment by nutrient-rich stormwater runoff.

In addition to professional application, there is a provision in Hernando’s fertilizer ordinance that allows Hernando residents to fertilize flower beds, yard plants and vegetable gardens, as it poses little risk compared to broad spreading of fertilizer on lawns.

How effective has the three-month ban been since implementation.

It’s difficult to say, said Lester, as it can take several years before the benefits can be accurately measured. He does say that measured nitrogen levels in Hernando waters, “as far as I am aware,” have not gone up, which he said is an indicator that the ban may be doing its job.

Lester said fertilizer isn’t the only thing impacting Hernando waters. He said septic systems play a role, which is why it’s important to carefully regulate and inspect the disposal systems to ensure they are not increasing nitrogen in the water.

One of the biggest concerns in Hernando over the years has been protecting the Weeki Wachee River, where algae growth has been an issue. Many homes along the river have septic systems, so ensuring fertilizer from lawns along the river isn’t making its way into the water is especially important, said Lester.