Florida’s Algae Blame Sticks to ‘Red-Tide Rick’ in Senate Race
(Bloomberg) -- A mermaid was among a line of protesters in Englewood, Florida, during morning rush hour earlier this month, chanting at the passing cars. “Defeat red tide! Defeat Rick Scott!” they shouted, getting more thumbs up than middle fingers from drivers.
They were soon joined by a two-man counter-protest: a father and son waving a flag bearing Trump’s name, yelling: “Red tide is naturally occurring!”
This skirmish is echoed in election campaigns across Florida as the state battles an ugly pair of algae epidemics: Reddish clusters along the beaches and a blue-green stew that spread east and west from Lake Okeechobee, the heart of Florida’s water supply.
Democrats blame Republicans -- especially Governor Scott, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate whom they call "Red-Tide Rick." The nickname stuck, and it’s dragging down other GOP candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot, said Alex Patton, a Florida-based Republican consultant. Environmental experts also say the responsibility for the algae problem lies largely with the state government.
Scott faults his election opponent, incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, for a lack of federal funding for projects to control the algae. President Donald Trump boosted that argument on Oct. 9, tweeting, "Bill Nelson has been no help!”
Mother nature is never far away in Florida, where a rising sea level is seeping into low-lying cities and storms like Hurricane Michael threaten human life, infrastructure and -- this year -- voter turnout. Republican and Democratic candidates alike have taken note, especially as months of noxious algae remind beachside towns that much of Florida’s tourism-based economy depends on protecting the environment.
The record algae outbreaks are also affecting Florida races for governor and a handful of closely contested House districts. In this geographically and culturally diverse swing state, that could mean the difference for Republican control of Congress, as well as Trump’s re-election bid in 2020.
“We saw numbers dramatically change in polling” after the red tide, Patton said. “The coastal communities where the red tide has hit, it’s a significant issue.”
The algae attacks stem from two separate but related problems, each the result of years of policy decisions. The first is the high level of phosphorous and nitrogen -- mostly from agricultural runoff -- entering the waterways that run south through central Florida to Lake Okeechobee, resulting in the blue-green cyanobacteria algae.
The second is the decades-long delay in building a reservoir to send this contaminated water south to treat it before it flows into the Everglades. Without this reservoir, the nutrient-heavy water is sent east and west in rivers toward Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts, where it fuels the toxic red Karenia brevis algae.
“We are just crying over what’s happening to us with the runoff,” said Linda Kolber, a shopkeeper in Punta Gorda, just north of where the Caloosahatchee River empties into the Gulf. “There are a lot of people that blame our governor because they feel that for years with big business he’s looked the other way.”
Sherry O’Connell, a 66-year-old artist who dressed as a mermaid to join the protest in Englewood on the Gulf Coast, said, “It’s an election year, and that’s part of my beef: After all the damage that’s been done, the Republican candidates are trying to run as environmentalists.”
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for Scott’s Senate campaign, said “it’s ridiculous” to blame the governor for red tide and algae blooms and said the federal government bears responsibility for not fixing the dike around Lake Okeechobee that would allow the water level to rise.
Much of this year’s problem stems from record rainfall in May that threatened to overwhelm the dike around Lake Okeechobee. After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was forced to increase the flow of water into the rivers that run east and west from the lake, the runoff nutrients fed monstrous blooms of blue-green algae.
When those nutrients reached the Florida coasts, they fed the red tide -- part of the reason the natural phenomenon that normally occurs for just a few days has turned into months of dead fish and toxic air.
“The idea is that, because these organisms are naturally occurring, their high abundance is also naturally occurring,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, a clean-water group. “And that’s a logical fallacy.”
Almost three-quarters of the nutrients that enter Lake Okeechobee come from agriculture, according to data compiled by the Everglades Foundation and confirmed by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Agricultural runoff is chiefly the responsibility of the state, not the federal government, according to Richard Grosso, a professor at Shepard Broad College of Law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. "It’s the state that enforces, and requires, best-management practices on farms," Gross said.
Scott has shielded the agriculture industry from regulations that would cut those nutrients, environmentalists say. After becoming governor in 2011, Scott asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to delegate the regulation of nutrient runoff to the state.
Scott then set up rules that are “nearly impossible to use as real limits,” according to Alisa Coe, a lawyer at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law group that sued the EPA to impose regulations a decade ago. The governor also canceled a 2015 deadline to limit the amount of nutrients that can enter Lake Okeechobee.
“There’s a lot of opportunities the state has missed to address this problem,” Coe said. “It’s why we’re in this crisis.”
Scott and others have cited upriver human waste as part of the problem, and he promised to help communities switch to sewage systems instead of septic tanks. Yet the data from the Everglades Foundation show that only about 12 percent of excess nutrients in the lake comes from urban runoff.
Gary Ritter, assistant director of government and community affairs at the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, said farmers have already reduced the nutrients coming off their land. He said the solution is for the federal and state governments to build infrastructure that can hold and treat water before it reaches Lake Okeechobee.
"Agriculture should not be the only one that is responsible for getting these nutrient loads down," Ritter said in a phone interview.
Others reject that argument. "If I take my garbage and dump it over my fence into the neighbors’ yard, they’re not going to be happy," said Larry Brand, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami. "Agriculture is allowed to let their nutrients run off into public waterways."
The nutrients running into the lake are only half of the problem.
A century ago, the land south of the lake was part of the Everglades, the ecologically precious "river of grass" that moved water south from Lake Okeechobee to the coast. A series of drainage canals allowed farming of the land, giving rise to the state’s massive -- and politically influential -- sugar industry, but also disrupting the southward flow of water.
Plans to buy land to create a 60,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to treat its nutrient-contaminated water were moving forward when Scott became governor, but he canceled the deal.
Last year, Scott signed a bill authorizing the construction of a smaller $1.6 billion reservoir on land the state already owns. Congress has authorized but hasn’t appropriated its half of the cost; at that point, it will take nine to 10 years to plan and build the reservoir, said Randy Smith, a spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that will build it. “It’s a large construction project,” Smith said.
Residents of coastal communities hope the reservoir will capture and cleanse the water that currently goes east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Gulf of Mexico. In recent weeks, Florida’s Gulf Coast got some relief after Hurricane Michael swept much of the harmful red tide back out to sea.
“It moved out further to the gulf so we’re not impacted -- out of sight, out of mind somewhat -- and so it’s no longer as big of a drag as it was previously,” said Joe Gruters, the Sarasota County GOP chairman who is running for the state Senate. “The Democrats were effectively articulating the message of: Republicans are in charge, Republicans are at fault.”
Even as the Gulf Coast began to clear, the red tide made its way to Florida’s east coast, threatening beaches from Miami to near Orlando. Environmentalists hope the scope of the crisis means something will change, whoever wins next month.
"It is the Cuyahoga River lighting on fire," said Paul Schwiep, a Miami lawyer who has represented environmental groups, referring to the polluted river in Ohio whose 1969 combustion pressured Congress to pass sweeping environmental-protection laws. "At least, it should be."
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