Slower Fertilizers = Cleaner Waters

by Michele S. Byers, Executive Director, New Jersey Conservation Foundation

In the midst of the snowiest winter in recent memory, few of us were thinking about lawns and gardens. But on a chilly day in January when New Jersey lawns were blanketed in white, Governor Christie signed into law the nation‘s toughest fertilizer bill, aimed at protecting our waters – and the creatures living in them – from the damaging effects of chemical nutrients.

Many of the new law’s provisions don’t take effect immediately, to minimize financial loss to manufacturers and retailers with existing inventory. But changes are coming, and not a moment too soon!


A multi-year initiative by the state Legislature and environmental advocates working to preserve Barnegat Bay ultimately resulted in the new law.

One of the biggest threats to Barnegat Bay – and all of our state’s waterways – comes from nitrogen found in fertilizers. Rain washes excess nitrogen and other nutrients off lawns, where they flow across driveways and streets, into storm drains, and into streams, rivers and bays.

When nutrients become too abundant, “blooms” of algae form and eventually die off and get consumed by bacteria. The bacteria deplete oxygen in the water, robbing it from marine life that needs oxygen to survive. In Barnegat Bay, this low-oxygen condition – called hypoxia – leads to another problem: stinging jellyfish, which have proliferated in recent years.

Low oxygen, algae blooms and hypoxia aren’t unique to Barnegat Bay. The World Resources Institute ( and Virginia Institute of Marine Science have identified more than 760 coastal areas with these conditions – including 530 “dead zones” in oceans around the world, where so little dissolved oxygen is left in the water that few fish or other advanced marine life can exist. All told, the sites encompass more than 95,000 square miles. The largest, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, is more than 8,500 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey!

If you want to see our state’s problem sites, check out the World Resources Institute’s interactive map at .

Under the new fertilizer law – which impacts the entire Garden State – at least 20 percent of nitrogen in fertilizers sold in New Jersey must be classified as “slow-release.” A University of Florida study found that only one-third as much nitrogen found its way into groundwater when slow-release fertilizers were used.

This is a common sense step toward restoring Barnegat Bay and protecting our water resources. In addition to limiting the amount of nitrogen in fertilizers and requiring a certain percentage to be slow-release, the law establishes buffers around waterways, requires fertilizer application professionals to be certified by the state, and sets “blackout” periods when fertilizers cannot be used.

You can help protect New Jersey’s waters – bays, rivers, streams, marshes and lakes – this spring with your personal choices. Consider skipping fertilizers altogether, or looking for organic alternatives. If you choose a fertilizer, look for one with the maximum amount of slow-release nutrients.

And if you’d like more information about conserving New Jersey’s precious land and natural resources, please visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s website at or contact me at .

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