Phosphorus runoff from farms and lawns in the western NY watershed, leading to algal blooms in Lake Ontario, has become a major environmental and health concern. To help restore the health and beauty of Lake Ontario, it is important to increase awareness of the harmful effects of phosphorus runoff, the actions required to reduce runoff, and promote alternate phosphorus-free replacement materials.
Phosphorus is necessary for life in small amounts, but elevated levels of phosphorus in water can lead to an explosion of life that is ultimately harmful: an algal bloom. An algal bloom is a rapid increase of algae in an aquatic system, and can lead anoxic zones, block bottom sunlight, increase the turbidity and sedimentation of the water, and increase the expense of water treatment to potable standards due to eutrophrication. Anoxic zones are regions of water where there is no suspended oxygen in the water, making it impossible for fish to live. When algal blooms stop sunlight, the aquatic plants that need it for photosynthesis can not survive.1 Increased turbidity and sedimentation also reduce sunlight at depth, and leave the water unsuitable for industrial processes without treatment and dangerous for recreational purposes due to low visibility and increased bacteria and virus levels.2
Environmental water pollution has many sources, from the seemingly innocuous leaf piles in the street in fall which decompose to release phosphorus, to industrial waste water, fertilizer runoff and household detergent use. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the majority of phosphorus pollution comes from nonpoint sources; that is to say, indirect pollution as detailed, not dumping phosphorus directly into the rivers and lakes of Western New York.3 Phosphorus pollution was recognized as detrimental to our environment as far back as the 1960s, which lead to various jurisdictional bans on phosphates in clothes detergents, but many exceptions were made for less widespread products, such as dishwasher detergents (dishwashers were not common household appliances until the 1970s) and lawn fertilizer.4
It is unlikely any headway could be made by a small group of concerned environmentalists to combat phosphorus pollution in large scale agriculture or industrial processes. Farms are major sources of phosphorus pollution simply because the manure produced by livestock, poultry in particularly, is very rich in phosphates. When that manure is used to fertilize crops, the runoff enters the ground water and ends up in whatever river or lake the watershed in question feeds. Farmers who can fertilize their fields with waste from their livestock ventures or cheaply acquire manure from other local farmers are saving enough money that they will not change their ways. Large scale agriculture has razor thin profit margins, and as usual, nobody is going to put the environment ahead of his own self interest. The same rule applies in industrial pollution: the only way to change the phosphorus output of a factory is to enact water cleanliness regulations before release back into the environment, and that sort of legislative action is beyond the scope of this proposal.
A small group could, however, certainly be successful with an information campaign among local businesses. Something as simple as constructing pamphlets of a professional appearance, a quarterly newsletter, or similar for distribution in the local area would help inform the ignorant of ways they could change their habits, with minimal personal impact, to make a difference in the phosphorus pollution problem. The targets should be places where people are mandated to wait and be bored, such as medical offices, bank lobbies, and similar areas. How often is your dentist on schedule for your appointment? Mine has never been, and if even one in ten people exposed to our pamphlet reads it, and one in five of those actually follows our guidelines, a measurable change will be accomplished. It is important to stay on top of the pamphlet and update it periodically.
Communication with local garden supply houses and grocery stores is another vector worth pursuing. We should find out whether the store owners are aware of the phosphorus pollution problem, and if not, educate them. If they could be convinced to offer phosphorus free alternatives to regular lawn and garden fertilizers or dishwasher detergents and possibly push the products on customers who ask for help, another nonpoint source of pollution would be reduced. Once again, it is important to follow through on this action and stay in touch with the business owners; we might even pick up a sponsor for our pamphlet. It isn’t cheap to mass produce an attractive pamphlet, after all, and the more professional it appears, the more seriously it will be taken.
It seems unlikely that just a few concerned citizens could make a difference in such a large problem as phosphorus pollution. However, if we focus on information choke points and inject our anti-phosphorus meme at that point, our actions will cause quite an impact.
1 Center for Environmental Information. (n.d.) Phosphorus and Water – Why are They Important to Us All? http://www.ceinfo.org/learnigpages/P_PhorsphorusAndWater.pdf
2 Virginia Department of Health. (2009). What are Harmful Algal Blooms http://www.vdh.state.va.us/epidemiology/DZEE/Waterborne/HABS/
3 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (1998). Nonpoint Pollution of Surface Waters with Phosphorus and Nitrogen. http://www.epa.gov/watertrain/pdf/issue3.pdf
4 Chris Knud-Hansen. (1994). Historical Perspective of the Phosphate Detergent Conflict. http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/full_text_search/AllCRCDocs/94-54.htm