Saturday, July 16, 2016

Algae and Politics, Florida Style

The latest outrage in the Lake Okeechobee mess is not the algae bloom — which is widespread, toxic and damaging to health and tourism alike. No, that was predictable.
The latest outrage is Governor Rick Scott’s assignment of blame. In a remarkable political tanda, he blamed septic tank runoff. That’s right! Septic tank runoff that just happens to be in the sugarcane fields of Clewiston.
You can’t make this stuff up.
Scott’s allegations would be laughable if this were a laughing matter. But it’s not. It’s a massive problem that is being politicized, and everyone in South Florida stands to lose.
Let’s consider three things, all factual.
1. The pollution problem in Lake Okeechobee is not caused primarily by septic tank runoff. It is caused by the agriculture industry. It is due almost entirely to high nutrient levels — dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus — in fertilizer runoff, fertilizer needed to make sugarcane and other crops grow in the nutrient-poor soil of South Florida. The nutrients feed the algae and, voila, you have coagulated blooms that spread and clog and poison. And they don’t go away. They sink into the sediment of waterways and then reappear.
2. Buying land around Lake O — enough of it to make a difference — is not going to happen. That’s tilting at windmills. The environmentalists want to buy some U.S. Sugar land south of the lake, create reservoirs to hold water outflows, clean up the water and send it into the Everglades — nice and tidy, a three-point play.
All it takes is money. If only the feds would ante up or Tallahassee would release funds from Florida Forever, then our problems would go away. But it’s not that simple. The pollution isn’t coming just from land south of the lake or even from the east or west as well. Nutrient pollution is also rampant to the north. To make an impact, a massive land purchase would be needed, costing billions of taxpayer dollars.
And not all of that land is up for sale. An option for 47,000 acres south of the lake expired in October 2015. Another option would require an all-or-nothing purchase of 184,000 acres south and east of the lake at market prices — a staggering expense.
3. The only realistic hope is to tighten and enforce water-quality standards. That doesn’t take billions of dollars. What it does take is action by the state Department of Environmental Protection and some political will. Requirements to maintain low nutrient levels in all state waterways, if enforced in Clewiston and the surrounding area might, just might, cut pollution in Lake O and reduce algae buildup in South Florida.
Is it likely to happen? No. Big sugar has a lot of political clout. And the balance of power in Tallahassee is not going to change anytime soon.
What is likely to happen is more cries for federal aid, more calls for land purchase and more finger-pointing — none of which will lead anywhere.

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