Monday, July 23, 2018

The Politics of Algae

Have you seen the Caloosahatchee River lately? Or the estuary outlets at Ft. Myers? Or the waterways at Sanibel or Captiva?

They're loaded with algae.

Even worse I am told is Lake Okeechobee (90% covered with algae) and the St. Lucie River, which is draining the salad-like discharges to the east. I don't know about the Kissimmee River basin to the north, but I suspect it's not much better. Several reports say the fouled water has found its way into  the Everglades.

Long known to be a fish and bird killer, toxic algal blooms are now being blamed for human health problems -- respiratory disorders, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, even long-term liver disease. Not surprisingly, we are told not to eat the fish from the polluted areas.

How did things get to be this bad?

The problem has been building for years, the result of massive fertilizer runoff from big farms and, to a lesser degree, runoff from ranches, open septic tanks and well-tended lawns around the state. The sugar industry has been a major polluter.

Nutrients in the various runoffs, primarily dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus, feed the algae which grows into choking clusters of algal bloom. Heavy rainfall, sunlight and high temperatures make things worse. Put it all together and you have, no pun intended, a perfect storm for South Florida.

And, while the organism is different, the nutrient feeding is the same for algae responsible for the "red tide" that has lingered for months along the coast.

And the economy is suffering the consequences. Waterfront home sales have slipped. The fishing industry has been impacted. Beach-going tourism has lagged.

The problem is severe, but it has been for some time. What's different is that this is an election year, and the politicos who turned a blind eye in the past now see a campaign opportunity.

Governor Rick Scott, vying for a U.S. Senate seat, declared an emergency, allowing the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District to waive certain restrictions for water storage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers temporarily stopped discharges from Lake Okeechobee, but resumed them when rising water threatened to breech the Herbert Hoover Dyke that surrounds the lake.

That prompted calls by Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson for federal funds to speed up  strengthening the dyke. The Trump administration added its support, a meaningless gesture for a project that won't be completed until 2025 at the earliest. What kind of money are we talking about here? $1.6 billion approved by the Florida legislature, half to be paid by the feds.

That may sound like a lot, but it won't even begin to deal with a problem that requires massive holding reservoirs on all sides of Lake O, as well as extensive filter marshes or other treatment facilities to clean up the fouled discharges. Many billions will be needed and soon. Florida's tourist industry is at stake, as well as the health of the people affected by the toxic water.

In the meantime, the candidates are huffing and puffing. Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ron DeSantis accused rival Adam Putnam of being joined at the hip with his biggest support, the sugar industry. Putnam has been called "Mr. Blue-green Algae." Democrats throughout the state see an opportunity to pin the woes on a Republican-led legislature that has skimped on environmental spending for years.

Here's a gratuitous suggestion for a candidate who may want to enter the fray: Demand that surface and groundwater standards be tightened throughout the state. Urge the DEP to sharply limit dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus in all Florida waterways. Put the onus on the big polluters by enforcing the regs at megafarms and ranches and mines. That would be a good start and it wouldn't cost billions.

I would vote for that candidate in a heartbeat.

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