Florida’s most valuable commodity — water — stirs visceral perspectives about environmental protections like nothing else. Tallahassee appears less than enthusiastic about the vast value of water, from tourism and development to recreation and wildlife. Instead, special interests command interest as history shows.
The current thick, toxic algae blooms spreading across the coast and other waterways in South Florida highlights the inexcusable procrastination on solving the flood of polluted water discharged from Lake Okeechobee. The Army Corps of Engineers is releasing billions of gallons of water polluted mostly from agricultural runoff that is saturated with fertilizer and other nutrients that feed algae blooms. The sludge is devastating the rivers and estuaries as well as the communities and businesses along those waters. Gov. Rick Scott and state water managers ignored countless warnings over the years about this inevitable disaster.
While there is no direct impact on Manatee County that can currently be measured, tourism officials across Florida fear vacation cancellations based on media reports that show the massive environmental disaster — similar to the reaction from the devastating 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Too little, too late, the governor declared Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie and Lee counties disaster areas and then had the nerve to challenge President Obama — long Scott’s political target — for federal money to repair the 143-mile earthen dike, built to prevent devastating flooding across southern Florida. This comes from a governor who has eschewed federal funds for political reasons for years, to the detriment of Floridians.
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New state water policy put polluters in charge on several key fronts.
While issuing his disaster declaration, the governor also blamed the president and the federal government for not properly funding dike maintenance and repairs. Florida is fully complicit in denying an adequate share of funds to lake sustainability, and delay after delay has led to the present catastrophe. Toxic algae blooms have been occurring for years, and immediate action should be undertaken to prevent more.
Following the pattern of Tallahassee’s shameful record on environmental protection over the years, in January one legislative leader hyped a bill as a “historic” move to “modernize” state water policy. But the end product, adopted into law, was fashioned by special interests — actually eviscerating enforceable regulations against polluters. One preposterous provision allows the agricultural industry to oversee itself under the pretense of a so-called “best management practices” arrangement. In addition, large water users can dawdle for decades to satisfy clean-up goals. And there are no penalties for breaking the weak rules. Those stand in direct opposition to environmental protection.
In a letter to Scott, former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham described the bill as “blatantly” favoring special interests and he urged its rejection. Scott, though, remained tone deaf to serious environmental protection by signing the measure.
In another move subverting environmental protection, a 2010 law designed to protect water quality required inspections of septic tanks once every five years. But two years later, the Legislature repealed the statute.
Legislature not following most of Amendment 1’s environmental mandates.
The best that can be said about Amendment 1, overwhelming passed in 2014 by Florida voters obviously alarmed by state indifference to the environment, is it forced the Legislature to act on Everglades restoration. The 2016 Florida Legacy Act requires $200 million annually for two decades be spent on that project. Otherwise, lawmakers have been acting disinterested in meaningful action on other amendment priorities, from land-buying to springs restoration, and they still refuse to fully implement the amendment.
Florida had the opportunity of a lifetime to purchase farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage — in a deal that then-Gov. Charlie Crist arranged. But Big Sugar flexed its political muscle — gained through campaign checks amounting to $57 million over 22 years — and had Tallahassee kill the deal.
Because of Florida’s subtropical climate, no water body is immune from algae blooms should nutrients such as phosphate and nitrogen be present, mostly from residential runoff and agricultural fertilizers. But natural nutrients are everywhere in underground rock and waterway sediment. The algae on Lake Manatee, though, does not form into toxic blooms thanks to constant monitoring and preventive measures such as algaecide and water circulators.
Manatee County vigorously protects its most precious resource. Tallahassee should too.