Governor Rick Scott declared a state of Emergency Aug. 13 for seven southwest Florida counties currently impacted by a lingering toxic red tide algae bloom crisis. The bloom, which has persisted since last fall, now stretches some 150 miles between Naples and Anna Maria Island and appears to be moving north.
Monday’s emergency declaration follows a previous state of emergency declared by Gov. Scott in July for counties along Florida’s east and west coasts due to thick blue-green algae conditions choking waterways.
Researchers link the algae crisis to nutrient-laden freshwater released from Lake Okeechobee into rivers on both coasts. Its become a hot-button issue heading into the August 28 primary election and a frequent talking point for the seven Republican and Democratic frontrunner gubernatorial candidates
The five Democratic candidates for governor are largely in agreement on what to do about Florida’s algae bloom crisis: redirect freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee south through the Everglades to a reservoir, which is yet to be constructed, address the sources of nutrient pollution flowing into the lake, and eliminate the political influence of Florida’s sugar industry which has been linked to that nutrient pollution.
During a July debate in Fort Myers, Democratic candidates Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, billionaire businessman Jeff Greene and former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine called for a reversal of environmental policies enacted under Governor Rick Scott’s administration. Levine addressed the current leadership on the state’s water management district boards as well as funding for the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
“One of the most important things we can do, folks, is we need to make sure those water management boards are no longer filled with Rick Scott cronies; that we actually put scientists, community leaders, ecologists, environmentalists who understand what a water management board is supposed to do,” said Levine. “We need to begin monitoring water again. Rick Scott took away all the monitoring systems by defunding the department of environmental protection, which by the way, under his administration should be called the department of environmental exploitation.”
Scott is currently running to unseat U.S. Democratic Senator Bill Nelson.
Tallahassee Mayor Gillum took the issue a step further, saying Florida needs to better regulate development linked to nutrient pollution north of Lake O and that the state needs to explore how solutions to those water releases will impact agricultural communities South of the lake.
“We’ve got to deal with the 50,000 citizens who are surrounding that industry, many of them communities of color, who are not being talked to about the kind of job industry that we’re going to usher into their area once we transform the agricultural use around it,” said Gillum. “We’ve got to make sure that we give those people a new deal around how it is that they’re going to live their lives out once we transform sugar and make them a better corporate citizen in this state.”
The Democratic candidates, as well as Republican candidate Congressman Ron DeSantis, tout that they’re campaigns do not take donations from sugar industry interests. Gwen Graham previously took some $17 thousand dollars from sugar interests, but later gave that money to the nonprofit Indian Riverkeeper, which works to restore water quality in the Indian River Lagoon on the east coast.
Sugar industry contributions to the campaign of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, as well as to political action committees that support him, are a frequent talking point of his opponent in the GOP gubernatorial primary, Congressman Ron DeSantis.
“Adam is basically the errand boy for U.S. Sugar,” said DeSantis during a recent debate in Jacksonville. “I mean, he is going to stand with them. All his solutions are going to give them everything they want. They’ve pumped millions of dollars directly and indirectly into his campaign.”
At a recent debate in Jacksonville, DeSantis also touted his efforts in Washington to get federal dollars to match state funding in this year’s water bill to address the crisis.
Putnam, on the other hand, paints his GOP primary opponent as a Washington insider who doesn’t fully grasp the issue.
“I think that you can take everything that my opponent knows about water and put it on your sticky note and still have room left over for your grocery list,” said Putnam at the same debate. “If we were waiting on Washington, we’d never had any of this done. Twenty years ago the land was purchased for the C-43 and C-44 reservoir – under Jeb Bush’s leadership. Still no reservoir. Still waiting on the Corps of Engineers.”
The winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries will face off in the November general election.
Meanwhile, tourism marketing agencies along Florida’s coastal communities are working to quantify the financial losses to their tourism-based economies.
And with no end in sight to the harmful releases from Lake Okeechobee, the long-term impact on marine life and Florida’s coastal environments remains unknown.