Smart Water

Ground Water and Hydrophilic Chemicals

Outer Cape Water Quality Initiative: How do grass and natural lawns affect water quality?

Pesticides seem an easy target, but they really direct us to a much larger picture.

Grass lawns don't need to be stigmatized as wrong or bad but perhaps a new balance can be considered between grass lawns and natural (indigenous vegetation) lawns. The Outer Cape's thin soil conditions are brutal, acid and nutrient poor. The natural indigenous vegetation, like the residents, seem to thrive on the weather abuse.

Grass lawns are usually seeded on top of six to eight inches of loam or topsoil. Fertilizers are added to stimulate growth and all sorts of seeds will be successful there. The leaves will be enriched, sending out chemical calling cards to insects. To reduce unwanted "weeds" herbicides may be used. To discourage insects, pesticides may be used. Frequent watering, additional fertilizers and continued use of pesticides and weed killer may be needed. Indigenous animals will find no familiar food or habitat there.

Natural (Indigenous) lawns can be seeded with conservation mix over an inch or two of indigenous compost (obtained free from local transfer stations). We usually rake the compost in a little, seed and then add a once inch layer of mulch (also free from transfer stations) to mimic natural soil profiles.

When transfer stations chip brush, branches and leaves, bacteria and microorganisms begin the decomposition process. The new material can be used as mulch and the dark final product can be used as compost. The benefit of using natural decomposition products is that they already have indigenous pH and nutrient content and host a full range of decomposers that keep on working. Keep the small chips and roots in the natural mix to protect natural diversity in the insect/decomposer community. This mix also welcomes indigenous volunteer seeds and will evolve naturally.

The benefits of natural systems include: creation of habitat for indigenous animals; natural erosion control (all grass creates runoff); naturally filters out sediment and excess nutrients with root/leaf stem systems; never needs mowing; never needs watering (except for the first growing season; never needs fertilizer; never needs pesticides; never needs herbicides. The benefits of natural lawn systems for our drinking water quality include: water conservation; pesticide free, herbicide free and fertilizer free. 


Ground Water and Hydrophilic Chemicals


If you have an interest in more detailed educational information and links regarding this topic, we have just published the booklet "Ground Water and Hydrophilic Chemicals". 

Download: Ground Water and Hydrophilic Chemicals

Safe Harbor Environmental Advocacy Initiative

This water quality initiative advocates the protection of drinking water resources on the Outer Cape. We support educational programs that develop awareness of our aquifer, which is recharged through ground water infiltration. We also encourage collaborative local partnerships, between town boards and stakeholder groups and between Outer Cape communities, to investigate the social changes needed to reduce chemical infiltration and improve our ground water recharge systems. The following discussion points outline the basic goals of the initiative. 1. Drinking water sourced from areas where household waste is infiltrated should be identified as an areas for improvement, through education. 2. Drinking water sourced from areas where lawn and garden chemicals are infiltrated should be identified as areas for improvement, through education. 3. Reducing infiltration of known carcinogens. 4. Reducing infiltration of non-degradable pesticides. 5. Reducing infiltration of biocide cleaners. 6. Reducing infiltration of growth hormones. 7. Reducing infiltration of antibiotics. 8. Reducing infiltration of petrochemicals. 9. Reducing infiltration of nitrogen and phosphorus. 10. Developing reliable, full spectrum monitoring programs. 11. Developing alternative choices for household chemical products. 12. Developing retailer support for chemical product alternatives. 13. Reducing storm water runoff with effective ground water infiltration systems.

We encourage leaders in Outer Cape Towns to discuss and support these basic goals. Discussions should include concerned residents and the capable contributors found on Planning Boards, Boards of Health and Conservation Commissions. Protecting our drinking water resources from chemical infiltration is a common goal that can unite local groups and create regional partnerships.

We support regional environmental initiatives. These initiatives work to conserve financial resources as well as natural resources. Local and regional partnerships contribute to successful initiatives by more effectively participating in stakeholder interaction and education.

Safe Harbor, 2007 For more information contact Gordon Peabody at 508-237-3724, or


Falmouth Receives OCEAN Environmental Initiative Award

Cape Cod’s water resources, specifically its estuaries and drinking water supply, are at risk to impacts of excess nutrients found in waste water and fertilizers. Effects of excess nitrogen can include human health risks from consumption and causing eutrophication in coastal embayments. It is widely understood that a majority of the additional nitrogen is generated from wastewater, but more recently the use of fertilizers was recognized another controllable source. According to Buzzards Bay Coalition, fertilizer contribution can make up 5-15% of the excess nitrogen in certain impaired watersheds on Cape Cod.[i] Due to this, the use of fertilizers and the regulation of that usage have become contentious topics around the Cape Cod community. State and local officials, industry representatives, environmental organizations, and the private property owners have all joined in on the discussion to voice their opinions and concerns about fertilizer regulations.

In an effort to spearhead water resource protection efforts, the Town of Falmouth has taken further action at reducing nitrogen loading by passing a local bylaw regulating the use of fertilizer. On November 13th, 2012, a fertilizer bylaw was passed at Falmouth Town Meeting. The purpose of the bylaw as stated in Article 7 of the November 2012 Town Meeting Warrant is to “… to conserve resources and protect our environment by regulating the outdoor application of nitrogen in order to reduce the overall amount of excess nitrogen entering the town’s Resource Areas as defined in the Wetlands Protection Bylaw (Chapter 235; Section 2) and regulations.” The bylaw prohibits application of nitrogen-containing fertilizer between October 16th and April 14th of ever year, and would ban applications during heavy rain events or within 100 feet of water resources. There are several exemptions that include application of nitrogen for agriculture and horticulture uses; application of fertilizer to golf courses, except any application within water resource areas; application to gardens; and application for the establishment of new vegetation in the first growing season or repairing of turf.[ii]

The development of the Falmouth fertilizer bylaw began with the Falmouth Water Quality Management Committee (WQMC), established in 2011 by the Falmouth Board of Selectmen. You can find more information about the committee here: 

The WQMC consists of eight members with backgrounds in the areas of environmental science, water management, public health, natural resource management, and community planning and leadership. In the beginning stages of the bylaw development, the WMQC Technical Staff reviewed several reports and recommendations from other fertilizer studies conducted on Cape Cod. The group met with the Director of the Barnstable County Cooperative Extension for guidance and researched the Falmouth Friendly Lawns model released by the Preserve Falmouth’s Bays and Ponds community campaign.

The Water Quality Management Committee held several meetings to discuss specifics of the bylaw including how to regulate for maximum benefit of removal of nitrogen from going into estuaries. It was important for the group to gain public support and develop a bylaw that would be manageable and consistent for all parties involved. The WMQC met with all stakeholders including golf course managers, landscapers, Falmouth Association Concerned with Estuaries and Saltponds (FACES), and municipal leaders to discuss concerns for the bylaw and how it would impact each party. These discussions led to the exemptions and specific performance standards detailed in the bylaw. After working on several drafts, the WQMC voted on the final bylaw and brought it to the Falmouth Board of Selectmen who unanimously endorsed for Town Meeting vote. After the 2012 Falmouth Town Meeting, the bylaw was sent to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office for approval. In May 2013, the MA Attorney General rejected the Falmouth bylaw stating that it “conflicts with a MA state law giving the MA Department of Agricultural Resources the authority to regulate fertilizer use.” [iii] Falmouth could still maintain its fertilizer bylaw if the House and Senate budget passes, as an exemption for the bylaw was included in the language.

There are other initiatives for reducing excess nitrogen by fertilizer use on Cape Cod. In September 2013, the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates designated a Cape-wide Fertilizer Management District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) under the Cape Cod Commission Act.

You can find additional information about the DCPC here: Also, the Town of Orleans Board of Selectmen adopted a town policy to reduce fertilizer use on Town-owned land.

Thank You to OCEAN Researcher Katherine Garofoli