In the old days, it was enough to keep the players safe. Increasingly, sports field managers are being charged with maintaining playing conditions while also keeping the environment safe.

While some industries face extensive federal environmental regulations, Dale Kemery, spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says the EPA “does not have any regulations that relate to the maintenance of artificial turf fields, nor do we have any specific regulations on the maintenance of natural grass sports fields.”

Like all herbicide and pesticide users, sports field managers must comply with label regulations governing the use of these chemicals. However, the EPA doesn’t have any different standards for sports turf managers than they do for, say, lawn and landscape maintenance contractors.

“The agency encourages use of integrated pest management [IPM] as an approach to managing school and public athletic fields,” notes Kemery. “Most schools, colleges and universities have to be concerned not only with pest management within their classrooms, lunch areas, gyms and dormitories, but also in their landscaping, playgrounds and athletic fields.”

What’s becoming more relevant for sports field managers are state environmental regulations. Perhaps the nation’s most stringent state environmental regulations governing the maintenance of sports fields can be found in New York. “If it’s an elementary or high school field, there are tons of regulations. It’s getting to be basically impossible to manage those kinds of fields,” says Mike Albino, turf manager with Ballard Sports  and president of the New York Sports Turf Managers Association (STMONY).

While college and professional fields are exempt, school fields – like all school grounds in the state – are off limits for chemical applications. The state law reads, in part: “Under amendments to the State Education Law (Section 409-k) and Social Services Law (Section 390-g), no school or day care center can apply pesticides to any playgrounds, turf, or athletic or playing fields.”

“You’re not allowed to use any kind of pesticides at all without submitting a written letter telling the state why you need to spray,” Albino confirms. These “emergency pesticide applications” must be approved, and then there are a series of notification laws to follow. “I’ve written some letters explaining that we needed some controls because it was starting to become a safety issue with poor footing, and in those cases applications are usually allowed,” he adds.

Product Impact

Manufacturers, as well as sports field managers, are thinking about the environment these days. About five years ago, Doug Schattinger, president and CEO of Pioneer Athletics, heard a presentation at an STMA conference by Dr. Richard White from Texas A&M about the environmental impact of field marking paints. “He suggested that volatile organic compound (VOC) levels were a good measure of whether a paint was healthy or not. A high number is bad, a low number is good,” Schattinger recalls.

Pioneer Athletics thus began a quest not only to create a line of paints with zero VOCs, but which were also more environmentally friendly in other ways. “We partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency so there would be no question to the validity of the paints,” says Schattinger. The company took part in the EPA’s “Designed for the Environment” program, which helps manufacturers look at every raw material used in its products to determine how it was sourced and processed, any byproducts that are left over, and how the finished product interacts with the environment.

Over several years, Pioneer Athletics worked to change ingredients where it could, eliminated VOCs entirely, and eventually produced its “Ultra Friendly” line of paints. “We turned out the most environmentally friendly product we knew how to,” summarizes Schattinger. The paints are even brighter and last longer than some of the company’s traditional paints, he adds.

There are no regulations that require sports field managers to use zero-VOC paints, but particularly for those maintaining fields in watersheds or other environmentally sensitive areas, there is growing attention about everything that gets put in the ground, Schattinger notes.

“Right now, there aren’t many tools available to the groundskeeper where they can make a positive impact on the environment with the products they use and still put out a good quality field,” he says. “Some manufacturers are content to just keep doing what they’re doing, but there is definitely a group of manufacturers that are pushing at the forefront of environmental friendliness.”

Heavy use school fields in the state are being particularly hard hit by the regulations, as sports turf managers strive to maintain quality, safe playing conditions without the use of chemical treatments. “There are a lot of ways you can do it, but it’s a lot more costly,” says Albino. “You’re going to triple your labor, and you’re going to be tripling your grass seed, and your fertilizer is going to have to go out at a little bit higher rate than usual.”

New York is one state with laws restricting the use of phosphate-containing fertilizers, which can pose further challenges in establishing grass on the fields, though to a lesser degree, notes Albino. Sports turf managers are working to comply with these regulations, but sometimes it’s difficult to disseminate information on the best ways to do so, he adds. “There are a lot of training sessions, but many times schools don’t send their sports field managers to them,” says Albino. STMONY makes a constant effort to alert its members to the educational opportunities available that can help them maintain fields while still complying with the regulations.

He feels that state laws like the one in New York will eventually find their way to other states. “This rule is only in New York now, but there are starting to become other regulations all over the place,” concludes Albino.

Mike Tarantino agrees. He is director of maintenance and operations for Poway (Calif.) School District and chair of the Sports Turf Managers Association’s created environmental committee. “It’s really the state regulations that we are following. And the worst part is that every state is different,” he explains.

Tarantino says that environmental issues rank near the top of the STMA strategic plan because it’s an area that members are seeking guidance on. “We formed the environmental committee to give our sports turf managers ideas on what to do with environmental issues,” says Tarantino.

It quickly became clear how difficult that was going to be with each state issuing its own regulations. “Right now, we’re working on writing some broad best management practices, or tech sheets, based on scientific evidence about maintenance practices that will minimize the impact on the environment,” he explains. “However, we stress that everyone needs to check with their individual state regulations, as well,” he adds.

Tarantino says it would be wise for sports turf managers to follow the best management practices (BMPs) even if they go beyond what their state requires, because this way they will be in a better position to respond and comply with any new regulations that are passed. STMA currently has an outside consultant working to gather and compile information on regulations impacting sports turf managers in each state. That information will eventually be accessible on the group’s website.

New York is currently the epicenter for regulations, he confirms. Tarantino says that, working in California, he’s become accustomed to strict environmental regulations – everything from IPM requirements to mandates for placement of irrigation sprinklers in new construction – but he was shocked at how far the New York law went. “It seems like the East Coast, including the Chesapeake Bay region, is really taking the lead on these issues and regulating fertilizers, pesticides, all of that,” Tarantino observes.

Indeed, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., are all about to enact new regulations governing the commercial application of fertilizers. These laws state that anyone applying fertilizer will have to first pass a test to become certified. Maryland’s test, for example, will cover topics such as the benefits and hazards of applying fertilizer; environmental impact; use and calibration of equipment; laws and regulation; interpretation of fertilizer labels; and University of Maryland recommendations. “It’s mainly aimed at making sure people who are new to the industry have a certain minimum level of competence before they go out and start spreading fertilizer,” explains Judy McGowan, urban nutrient management specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture. “For people who already have a pesticide license, a lot of it will be a repetition of what they’ve learned already.”

The state explains the purpose of the law this way: “Nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, are key ingredients in lawn fertilizer. When it rains, excess nutrients can wash off the land and into the streams and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay. Once in our waterways, excess fertilizers fuel the growth of algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching Bay grasses, rob the water of oxygen and threaten underwater life.”

That Maryland law will also limit the amount of nitrogen that can be included in each application; eliminate the use of fertilizers containing phosphorus, except in the case of starter fertilizers; and stop any fertilizer applications between December 1 and March 1. New Jersey just enacted a similar certification program for fertilizer applicators and requires professional applicators to take a training program and pass a test.

Nick Gammill is sports turf manager at American University in Washington, D.C., as well as an athletic field consultant in the area. He’s begun using organic fertilizers, primarily poultry manures, as a “green” alternative to synthetic fertilizers. “Organic fertilizers are not controlled under these nutrient management programs, so there’s no restrictions on using them, and we’ve found that they work well,” he explains.

Gammill says that environmental regulations will force sports field managers to look for new ways to do things, and people’s expectations may have to change. “If you have 5 percent weeds, I think that’s tolerable. If they get worse, you might need to cut an area out and resod rather than use chemicals,” he states. “People are going to have to look at other alternatives. If you rely on chemicals and all of a sudden you’re cut off from them, you’re going to be in trouble.”

With that in mind, American University started an experiment to try to maintain its NCAA-level stadium soccer field without chemicals. “We’re not doing it by law, but it’s a goal that we’ve set for ourselves,” Gammill explains. In anticipation of this effort, the grass has been changed to a tighter variety of bermudagrass to help fight weeds and will be overseeded with Poa trivialis instead of ryegrass, which should burn out on its own in the heat without chemicals. Gammill says the school has been maintaining its campus quad for seven years in this manner and has found that by aerating four to six times per year, overseeding twice a year and using organic fertilizers, the results are good.

While the focus of sports field managers is currently on state environmental laws, there is one area where the STMA is watching federal developments, says Tarantino. “The only federal regulation that we’re really monitoring has to do with stormwater management,” he explains. Even though stormwater regulations are federal in nature, they are delegated to states to structure and enforce. “You basically end up following what your state water resources board wants you to do,” Tarantino adds. “I think that’s the next thing we’re facing.”

In some cases, school, rec and other facilities may be given stormwater management goals to meet, and the sports field manager will be a part of the team charged with meeting those goals, predicts Tarantino. “Just as phosphorus is being eliminated from fertilizers, this will be an elimination of stormwater runoff.” It’s part of the new environmental mindset sports field managers will have to adopt as they are required to think outside the lines.