How schools are dealing with a ban on synthetic pesticide use for some lawns

Next time a grassy schoolyard in Connecticut starts going bald from an infestation of grubs or billbugs, or crabgrass starts to supplant the turf and clover, groundskeepers will have to put some new techniques to work to combat the problems.

Gone are the containers of synthetic pesticides like Merit and Roundup that used to be a fixture of school lawn care. As of July 1, a law banning the use of synthetic pesticides on lawns of preschools and kindergarten through eighth-grade schools took effect, five years after the original law was passed by the General Assembly.

The law was revised and its full enactment delayed several times, even as many districts had been reducing or even totally eliminating pesticide use. It finally slipped through in time for the start of the 2010-11 school year.

"I have been getting a lot of inquiries and a certain amount of frustration," said Bradford Robinson, pesticide program supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Protection. One grounds manager called him last week to ask him how to get rid of the billbugs destroying a new field.

"I told him he had to reseed and start over," he said.

But, he added, "there is a lot you can do to prevent certain problems" by using organic lawn care methods. The section of the DEP's Web site about the law includes information and a video on organic lawn care. The law applies only to lawn care products, not pesticides used indoors, and doesn't prevent schools from using pesticides to control a specific health threat - such as mosquitoes with West Nile virus in a swamp near the school, or poison ivy growing at the edge of a ballfield, Robinson said.

The ban wasn't initiated by the DEP but by the legislature and groups concerned about the environment and children's health. A new position was created in the DEP for a staff person to explain the new law to school districts and make sure they're complying. Robinson said that person has begun visiting each district.

"She's talking with schools, looking at their plans, telling them what they can and can't use," he said.

Organic pesticides that are on the acceptable roster might sound more like part of a grocery list: soybean oil, garlic, thyme, white pepper and corn gluten, among others.

John Rhodes, Lyme-Old Lyme schools' director of facilities and technology, is among school officials who say the ban poses some challenges, but they've already learned to do without most pesticide use.

"We've been using organic fertilizers for a number of years, and we only used pesticides on an as-needed basis, so it won't affect us that much," he said.

But getting rid of grubs without chemicals will be difficult, he said, and since they destroy root systems he's eager to find an acceptable method. That's one reason he's signed up to attend a workshop in Mystic later this month in organic lawn care. The workshop is one of six being offered around the state by Grassroots Environmental Education, a national nonprofit focusing on environmental health issues. Thus far about 60 school turf managers have signed up for the free, daylong programs, said Doug Wood, associate director of Grassroots.

"Some turf managers still believe you have to use pesticides to maintain great fields, but that's old thinking," he said. Students at the workshop will learn about how to improve soil and encourage helpful microorganisms and earthworms to keep lawns healthy.

"It's also the way you cut the grass, the timing of irrigation, knowing how the soil system works," he said.

To get rid of crabgrass, for example, he recommends adding organic soil conditioners that raise soil pH.

Fred Balsamo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Athletic Directors, said schools are for the most part prepared to comply with the ban. It doesn't apply to fields used only by high school students, but does to all fields located at elementary and middle schools, even those primarily used for older students' sports practice or games.

"They've accepted it, and they're working around it," he said.

The law was adopted out of concerns that pesticide exposure could be harmful to children's health, linked to asthma, learning and developmental problems and increased risk of cancer. There are additional concerns about effects on wildlife and the environment, as residues seep into waterways and groundwater supplies.

Wes Greenleaf, director of buildings and grounds for Groton schools, said his district phased out the use of pesticides several years ago. The district has seven elementary schools and three middle schools, each with six to seven acres of grounds.

Not using pesticide was economical, Greenleaf said, "and we also found that (using them) wasn't necessary."

Learning to live with a few dandelions also helps, he said.

"The fields don't have to be perfect," he said.

If you go

Who: Grassroots Environmental Education

What: Workshops for school grounds managers in organic lawn care

Where: Six locations around the state, including the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic

When: Sept. 21-30; Mystic workshop will be 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Sept. 24.

Cost: Free

Registration: www.grassrootsinfo.org/ghlpcttraining.html

For information on the law and organic lawn care, visit: http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?a=2708&q=379676&depNav_GID=1763

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