State Politics

What did Florida lawmakers do about red tide? Not enough, critics say

Gov. Ron DeSantis discusses red tide

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, two days into office, discusses executive orders he signed to address the red tide issues impacting the state.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, two days into office, discusses executive orders he signed to address the red tide issues impacting the state.

When an unshakeable red tide bloom left residents devastated, Florida politicians promised strong action. Environmentalists say they didn’t get it.

Numerous bills that would’ve made at least incremental progress in regulating water quality were stalled and died in Florida Legislature subcommittees. Critics call it an about-face from those, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, who promised to keep the environment healthy.

“I’m just dumbfounded that the Legislature managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and pass not one single bill — good or bad — that will have one meaningful impact on red tide,” said Andy Mele, an activist with Suncoast Waterkeeper.

Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, had both sponsored legislation early in the six-week session that sought to limit the flow of nutrients that may feed harmful algal blooms like red tide and blue-green algae.

“How lawmakers could have told voters they were going take care of the water problem and then gone to Tallahassee for 61 days and blow hot air around is almost criminal,” Mele said. “This red tide was so disastrous that I have to think those people never saw it. I have to think they were never on the beach. The apocalyptic nature of this red tide is not something that can be ignored.”

However, a red tide mitigation bill filed by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, won widespread bipartisan support.

At least 500 people gathered on Anna Maria Island Sunday morning as part of the statewide “Hands Along the Water" event. Over 30 Florida beaches had demonstrations, which lasted 15 minutes, to bring awareness to the devastating red tide.

The Senate and the House both approved the bill, which would create an “ongoing cooperative red tide research and monitoring program between the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory,” with the goal of developing new technology to control or lessen red tide impacts. It provides $3 million in funding each year for the next five years.

But mitigation technology only goes so far, said Solutions To Avoid Red Tide (START) CEO Sandy Gilbert, who argued for more control and regulation over nutrients entering Florida waterways.

“I’m not a big mitigation fan anymore. I’d rather spend money on figuring out how to slow down the nutrient loading, because once red tide is here, you can’t get rid of it,” Gilbert said.

Thousands of fish continue to wash ashore in Manatee County as a result of a persistent red tide algae bloom. Manatee County workers are using tractors with sweeping attachments to collect the fish from the beaches.

“The budget passed and $682 million is going to environmental things at Lake Okeechobee,” he added. “But figuring out how to fix those outflows is going to take a while.”

The hundreds of millions being spent on the blue-green algae problem makes red tide look like a minor issue, Gilbert said, but on the bright side, he noticed that legislators are beginning to understand that runoff nutrients are also part of Florida’s algae problem and have begun taking steps to remedy it.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who sits on DeSantis’ Water Policy Committee, described the Legislature’s work as a step in the right direction.

In future sessions, she suggested, they may want to take a look at the effect fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals have on the quality of Florida’s water.

“It goes into the watershed and it goes into the Gulf (of Mexico). It has an effect, whether we want to realize it or not. It’s common sense,” said Baugh. “We know that it does. The bottom line is that we see ourselves in a different light than what the Legislature just did on red tide. It’s not just red tide or blue-green algae, it’s anything that’s affecting the quality of our water.”

Even if the lawmakers didn’t do much in the way of bills or law, they still chose to allocate almost $16 million of the $91.1 billion state budget directly toward red tide initiatives. That spending includes projects brought forth by DeSantis, including the creation of a brand new Center for Red Tide Research and a study that will explore potential long-term health impacts on those exposed to harmful algal bloom toxins.

DeSantis first outlined those plans in his “Bold Vision for a Bright Future” budget proposal in February. Even from the campaign trail, he rallied for the creation of a government-funded organization meant to investigate possible red tide mitigation strategies.

With $4.8 million, DeSantis’ wish is set to come true. The Center for Red Tide Research will be established within the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and, according to the recommended budget proposal, “would support the Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force and partnerships for mitigation and technology development with a renewed focus on red tide.”

The bloom hit the region on Sept. 19, 2016, and it may have been responsible for Sunday's fish kill along local beaches not to mentions some irritated noses and throats

Visitors and residents in Manatee County alike expressed concern during the extended bout of red tide over the possibility for long-term health effects after being exposed to the same toxins that washed hundreds of tons of dead marine life on Florida shores. Politicians are prepared to spend $650,000 to assuage any concerns, or at least find answers to those questions, with a long-term health study.

The health study was the one line item that Tallahassee legislators failed to match what DeSantis had recommended to fight red tide. He previously said he would’ve liked to see $1 million spent on that project. It remains to be seen whether he will exercise his line item veto rights to make up for the difference elsewhere.

But the biggest funding source dedicated to combating red tide comes in the form of $10 million to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, “for the purpose of supporting the evaluation and implementation of innovative technologies and short-term solutions to combat or clean up harmful algal blooms,” the budget reads.

That pot of money may also be used to support local governments in need of funding aid for beach and coastal cleanup for red tide debris. Beach water quality monitoring is the final piece of the $16 million red tide funding items.

“Beach water quality monitoring services shall include testing for enterococci bacteria,” the budget plan says. “However, the department may expand the scope of such services to include monitoring of blue-green algae and red tide toxins in certain coastal counties, as determined by the (Department of Health), that have the greatest risk of long-term health impacts.”

Dr. Vince Lovko talks about how Mote tests water for Karenia brevis, or the red tide phytoplankton.

In other algae-related spending, the state will spend $10.8 million to create a Blue-Green Algae Task Force in charge of nutrient reduction in and around Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. The group will also recommend regulatory updates.

While a time line on its creation isn’t clear, $4 million of the task force money has been appropriated toward a “water quality public information portal” aimed at keeping residents informed on the data regarding Florida’s key water bodies and springs.

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