Jack Payne: We all want our lawns green and our rivers clear

May 22, 2020

Can we have green yards without having green rivers? It’s a great time to think about the future, since at present so many of us are stuck at home, maybe even doing some yard work.

The work of AJ Reisinger, Eban Bean, and Michael Dukes could have as much effect on the Florida we see in 10 or 20 years as anything going on at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences right now. That’s because they work on the nation’s largest irrigated crop by acreage – lawns and landscapes.

We all want our lawns green and our rivers clear. But we know nutrients come from all sorts of places, including lawns, and can contribute to algae blooms. Reduce the nutrients, the thinking goes, and you reduce the chance of blooms.

Here’s what got my attention: Florida has 1.2 million acres available for development. This is likely a lot of lawn. If we can provide science to reduce how much fertilizer escapes when water from the sky or a sprinkler head washes over our yards, it could have huge implications for how those acres are developed.

 AJ’s idea is by adding just the right stuff to soil – he calls it amendments – he can make it act like more of a water and fertilizer sponge. If this reduces irrigation by up to 30 percent as AJ, Eban, and Michael hypothesize, it seems to me sprinkling soil amendments could be a way better deal than building reservoirs.

And if the grass roots feed on more fertilizer, the less left over for algae to feed on should it wash all the way to a river. This alone would not make algae blooms a thing of the past, but it could be a helpful step.

This isn’t not proven. This is why we need science. A lot of things are going to change as a result of the pandemic, but the challenge of protecting Florida’s water quality and quantity is not one of them.

We don’t have the money for a wide scale test of it now, and we don’t have plans to ask for it while everyone’s wearing masks and seeing each other mostly through computer screens. But science isn’t sidelined altogether at the moment.

AJ has small projects scattered throughout Alachua County, Eban in Marion and Lake counties. AJ works on the topsoil, Eban more on dirt before development. Michael runs the Center for Land Use Efficiency which brings agricultural and urban water science together on issues such as amendments whose benefits might accrue wherever there’s dirt, be it the farmer’s field or the homeowner’s lawn.

They hope to generate data points to help build the proof of concept needed for when times are better and it’s time to make a pitch.

What they’re doing now determines what they can do in the future. This is something we’d do well to keep in mind. Especially when this future is measured in millions of lawns and landscapes.

Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

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