Living in the Finger Lakes in the summer not only provides ample opportunity for recreating on its waterbodies, it also offers crisp autumn days with a colorful backdrop to bask in. As the leaves on our trees transform from green to the hues of the season and descend to the ground, they don’t just provide vibrant color, they are the source of nutrients that unfortunately can have a detrimental effect on our local waterbodies and water quality.
Phosphorus, an essential nutrient for plant growth, is released as a leaf begins to decompose. When left littering the ground or swept into the street, leaf litter can be transported by rain or melting snow into a storm drain and then out into the nearest lake, river or stream. Similarly, leaves discarded into gullies or roadside ditches eventually make their way to our waterbodies.
An excess amount of phosphorus in a fresh body of water can stimulate algae growth. Excessive algae growth blocks sunlight and prevents other plants from growing. When algae dies and decays, it takes essential oxygen away from fish. Phosphorus also contributes to the formation of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), that can produce dangerous toxins.
According to a study in Madison, Wisconsin by the United States Geological Survey, (https://www.usgs.gov/news/removal-fallen-leaves-can-improve-urban-water-quality) the timely removal of leaf litter reduced harmful phosphorus concentrations in storm water by over 80%. By properly handling leaf litter, we can all have a positive impact on water quality.
By making a conscientious effort to keep leaves out of streets and gutters, gullies and roadside ditches, the amount of phosphorus entering surface water can be reduced. Rake and bag fallen leaves in your yard. Many towns and villages offer curbside collection of properly compiled yard waste. Consider composting. It’s a great way to condition and enhance your soil and a less-expensive, more eco-friendly alternative to commercial fertilizers. Leaves also can serve as a mulch for flower beds, shrubs and trees. Simply use the mulching setting on your mower and bag as you go.