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Wisconsin’s lawn care season is in full swing. Mowing, fertilizing and applying chemicals aimed at destroying weeds and insects can result in a highly sought-after carpet of bright green adored by many.

With an estimated greater than 1 million acres of turf in Wisconsin, the work required to produce this landscape is repeated throughout the growing season by countless property owners. Though the season is brief, it has long-lasting impacts on our wetlands, streams and rivers. The tradeoff for all this turf management is a highly polluted watershed.

We tend to think that what we do in our own yards stays in our yards. But, it doesn’t. Storm water runoff is the conduit that connects us beyond our property lines. Rain coming off rooftops, paved surfaces and lawns becomes storm water runoff, sometimes also referred to as sheet flow. As it does so, it carries with it grass clippings, fertilizers, lawn chemicals, pet waste and all manner of other things. This water and all it conveys travels directly into the nearest body of water, unfiltered and untreated.

So, what happens once these pollutants reach surface water like the Root River, for example? Grass clippings, leaves and fertilizers transported by storm water runoff contribute to excessive nutrient loading.

Nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen and suspended solids generate an over-abundance of algae. One bushel of grass clippings can contain .1 pound of phosphorus. That’s enough to produce 30 to 50 pounds of algae. When excess algae begin to die, bacteria that decompose algae deplete oxygen that fish and other aquatic species require to survive. Excess algae also affects water temperature, degrades habitats, and negatively impacts important tourism and recreation dollars.

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What can be done to lessen the impact of contaminated storm water? Turns out there’s a host of things we can do to be storm water friendly. Here are a few:

  • Mulch your grass clippings and leave them on the lawn. It feeds the soil and keeps them out of storm water.
  • Have your soil tested before you fertilize. You may save time and money.
  • Top-dress your lawn with an inch of compost and rake into the turf. This is great for soil health and healthy soil is great for your lawn.
  • Healthy soil contains a robust population of living things. Pesticides are counterproductive to this goal.
  • Mow higher. This allows better root development and that makes it easier for water to travel back into the soil where it belongs instead of becoming runoff. It also enables turf to better out- compete with weeds.
  • Clean up after pets and dispose of it in the garbage.
  • Minimize the amount of runoff on your property by using rain barrels and rain gardens.
  • Consider replacing a portion of your non native lawn with native grasses. They are beautiful and functional. Their root systems are excellent for storm water infiltration.

Storm water runoff isn’t the problem. The real problem is the contaminates that it carries. Being storm water friendly means changing our view of run-off and becoming better educated about how our actions impact it.

Summertime in Wisconsin on a beautiful lawn is precious. Equally precious are Wisconsin’s beautiful lakes and rivers.

For more information, contact Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network at 262-898-2055 or email nan@rootpikewin.org, or go to www.rootpikewin.org or www.respectourwaters.org.

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