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Extension: How to protect water quality

This year we have seen 14 notable storms come out of the Atlantic, and most areas of Forsyth County have received more than 50 inches of rain. 

As we see more storms, there is an increase in the amount of water that runs off our roads, lawns, and driveways. This results in the movement of fertilizers, pesticides, oil, gas, and other chemicals from private property into adjacent streams. 

As that water moves downstream it eventually joins a reservoir where it will be used for drinking water. The people downstream of us are at the mercy of how we protect our water quality, just as we are at the mercy of the people upstream of us.

So how do we start taking care of our water? The first step is to manage the chemicals you use. Excess fertilizer will wash out of the soil and into streams, so having a soil test performed will help you fertilize the correct amount. 

The soil test will also tell you your soil pH; most crops need a pH between 6 and 6.5 so they can absorb nutrients. If the pH is wrong, the nutrients in the soil do not get used and it leaches out of the soil into groundwater where it eventually joins streams or lakes. 

You also want to be aware of when you are fertilizing; there is no point fertilizing if plants are dormant and fertilizing during drought can cause damage to plant roots. By avoiding these situations, you can save fertilizer for later when it will benefit your landscape.  

Another way you can protect water quality is by being strategic about the way you apply pesticides. Use the least impactful way of controlling weeds, disease, and insects first, then work your way up to the more impactful chemicals. This strategy is often referred to as “Integrated Pest Management." 

IPM serves to protect people and the environment as much as possible while keeping pest damage at an acceptable level. Avoid applying chemicals while it is windy, or if there is a storm in the forecast. Other instructions for how to use the chemical safely will be listed on the product label. Remember that the directions specified on the label is law. 

When you are preparing pesticides for use, or when you are filling equipment with gas, make sure to do so on a paved surface. This will make clean-up much simpler in the event of a spill, and it protects your lawn from harmful chemicals. 

Collect any spilled granules instead of sweeping them into the lawn and use kitty litter or absorption pads to clean up spilled liquids. Dispose of empty containers as the label requires; not all containers can be safely disposed of alongside household waste. 

While chemical management is incredibly important for water quality, there are a few practical things you can do to help reduce the amount of stormwater runoff. One of the best strategies is to minimize the number of paved surfaces on the property. Gravel, pebbles, and mulch can serve as a pathway and the materials allow water to soak into the ground. You can divert the water from your downspout into flowerbeds instead of onto pavement where it will wash chemicals into a storm drain. 

If you frequently have water washing over your lawn during storm events, you may want to consider installing a rain garden. Rain gardens serve to intercept and collect water so it can sink into the ground over time. In your gardens make sure you are mulching to hold soil down and add organic matter to the soil to improve soil’s water retention. 

There are many ways that you can protect water quality in your landscape. If you have any questions about these methods, or if you are interested in testing your irrigation water quality, call (770) 887-2418 or email Forsyth County Extension at