BROOKSVILLE - County Commissioner Diane Rowden remembers visiting Weeki Wachee Springs years ago when the water was pristine and mermaids performed their underwater dance maneuvers in a mostly algae-free setting.
Today, due to fertilizer making its way into the springs via runoff, the picture-postcard setting is a little less photogenic.
"You just don't realize how much (algae) there is," Rowden said. "The theater at the Springs is covered with it."
Rowden's board colleagues agreed and, after hearing a lengthy presentation from environmental experts, voted unanimously Tuesday to adopt a new commercial-residential fertilizer ordinance which regulates the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen or phosphorus throughout the county to a certain time of year. The ordinance, also requires fertilizer applicators to be trained and certified.
Commissioners said the ordinance should especially help the Weeki Wachee Springs system, where the level of nitrogen has almost doubled since the 1920s and was listed as "verified impaired due to nutrients" by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The board said it will partner with the Southwest Florida Water Management District to develop an education outreach program to spread the word about the ordinance's environmental safeguards.
Hernando now joins about 40 other counties in Florida in passing fertilizer ordinances. Pinellas County, for example, adopted one in January 2010. Hillsborough County enacted its ordinance June 1, 2012.
Hernando County's is more lenient than some counties, where fertilizer-restricted periods of some sort are in effect year-round.
The Hernando County ordinance, which incorporates language from a state model, establishes a limited application period of Jan. 1 through March 31, when only trained, registered applicators can apply fertilizer and, if they are using nitrogen, it must be of the slow-release form.
Those three months, typically dry, represent the greatest risk of fertilizer leaching into groundwater.
Other counties have adopted ordinances that establish summer "blackout" periods for fertilizing, with the general thinking that prevalent rains would tend to create more pesticide runoff.
But County Planner Patricia McNeese said new research shows that fertilizing during the dormant times early in the year creates a greater risk of pesticide runoff because plants and lawns cannot absorb the fertilizer and, when it rains, it is more apt to go into groundwater and springs.
Laurie Trenholm, with the University of Florida, attended Tuesday's meeting and praised Hernando County for being the first to enact an ordinance using the new methodology.
County Commissioner Nick Nicholson said enforcing the ordinance and tracking applicators will be difficult, given there are only four code enforcement officers who are already spread thin.
But Commission Chairman Dave Russell said he believes the public will self-police this ordinance because they are aware of the growing dangers of nitrogen and phosphorus-based fertilizer.
"(We) have people who understand the importance of our spring and that we have to maintain it," Russell said.
McNeese told commissioners staff will monitor the success of the ordinance during the initial period and that fertilizer applicator training has already commenced.
Assistant County Administrator for Planning & Development Ron Pianta said code enforcement officers will likely do the initial period but other departments may also pitch in where needed.
Pianta said there would be a transition period of about one year to get people up to speed on the ordinance, the first of its kind for Hernando County. No citations would be issued during the first year.
Nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilizer run-off from nearby homes and commercial farms have found their way to the springs and have supplanted many of the native plants and created an algae infestation, according to staffers. It is also affecting area rivers and lakes.
Hernando County is located on the "springs coast" and is home to at least 14 springs and three major springs groups - one of the highest percentages in the nation. The Weeki Wachee Main Spring is considered a valued resource, which attracts tourists from throughout the world
Nitrogen is one of the key elements found in fertilizer and, if applied in the proper amount and at the proper time, lawns will absorb and use most of the nitrogen.
But if applied incorrectly, the nitrogen can leach into groundwater, run off into rivers, lakes ponds streams and the Gulf of Mexico and can cause algae growth.
For more information or to find out how to get certified or registered, call McNeese at (352) 754-4057, ext. 28016.