Is FL facing another Summer of Slime? Thank Gov. DeSantis and do-nothing Legislature

April 29, 2021 7:00 am

Red tide as shown at a Florida beach in this file photo. Credit: GettyImages

Sometimes I wonder what it was like to be one of the early Spanish explorers of Florida, back when you could see it in all its swampy, bug-infested, gator-bellowing glory.

I can’t help but wonder about their reaction the first time they noticed the waters of what we now call the Gulf of Mexico had turned a rusty red, and the sea breezes were filled with a mix of cough-inducing toxins and the stench of dead fish.

Madre de Dios!” they must have muttered, rubbing at their watering eyes. “What evil could have created such a thing? Perhaps we should stop searching for gold and go back to Spain.”

And then I figure a bare-chested Calusa chief might have told them, “Chill, dudes. It’s a natural phenomenon and it rarely lasts long. But I gotta warn ya, the only gold you’ll find here is in our gorgeous sunsets.”

And then he started coughing and sneezing because the Spaniards gave him cold germs he couldn’t fight off. As we’ve learned, microscopic things tend to be our deadliest enemies.

I think about stuff like this when I see reports like the ones last week that the first signs of a growing red tide algae presence had appeared along Sarasota County’s sugar-white beaches.

This is no sudden development. State biologists began following a nascent red tide bloom way back in December. That’s when the rapidly multiplying menace first showed up off Lee County, according to Kate Hubbard, the top red tide expert with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s lab in St. Petersburg.

“We saw it persist and expand to Collier County,” she told me this week. “Since then, we’ve been watching it creep up the coast.”

The irritating algae named Karen — Karenia brevis comes from scientist Karen Steidinger — hasn’t quite reached “bloom” status. But it’s definitely hit “elevated levels,” Hubbard said.

And it hasn’t even hit the pollution dumped into Tampa Bay from Piney Point yet — that’s bound to make things worse.

As a Florida native who grew up loving our state’s beaches — The sand! The shells! The stingray shuffle! — the news of a red tide outbreak always makes me sad. It seems particularly cruel that one would be threatening our beaches just as people have gotten vaccinated and are finally feeling safe enough to venture out.

Who wants to go to the beach when it smells of rotting fish and retch-inducing red tide poison? You might as well keep your mask on (and not just to annoy that dunderhead Tucker Carlson).

As if red tide weren’t troubling enough, the equally nasty blue-green algae has popped up again in Lake Okeechobee, as well the Caloosahatchee River and in Martin County.

“The smell’s so horrible,” one Pahokee resident told the local CBS affiliate.

This toxic double whammy is stirring memories of the 2018 “Summer of Slime,” the last time we had both a red tide bloom and blue-green algae bloom going on at the same time. (That red tide bloom lasted longer than just the summer — it stretched from October 2017 to February 2019.)

I called up Cynthia Heil, director of the Red Tide Institute at Mote Marine Laboratory, to ask if she thought we might be heading toward “Summer of Slime II: Electric Boogaloo.”

“It’s hard to predict,” Heil said. “April is the most common month for red tide blooms to end over the past 25 years.” But southerly winds have blown this herd of microscopic swimmers northward and kept it going, she said.

Red tide regularly blooms off the Gulf coast, usually starting in September, she explained. Unless something prolongs its growth, by April it fades away, just as it has for centuries. Some years are good and we dodge the bloom. Some aren’t.

algae bloom
A 2018 algae outbreak in Stuart, where Lake Okeechobee water is discharged. Credit: John Moran

What’s unusual, she told me, is what’s been going on with the blue-green algae, known among scientists as “cyanobacteria.” The frequency of blooms in Lake Okeechobee has increased, and there is concern that those freshwater blooms are connecting to the growth and decline in saltwater of red tide, she said.

Blame climate change — hot, sunny conditions stimulate algae growth — and excessive nutrient pollution from agriculture, suburban lawns, and sewage. Both climate change and nutrients are a major problem in Florida, but neither is exclusive to Florida.

“Globally, there’s a recognition that we’re seeing more cyanobacteria, and it’s not staying in one place,” Heil said.

This is very bad news for a lot of people — not least among them our politically ambitious Gov. Ron DeSantis.

‘What a surprise’

Because the Summer of Slime occurred during an election year, toxic algae blooms became a hot political issue here in Florida. People were upset and demanded action from their politicians.

You may recall that then-Gov. Rick Scott, running for a U.S. Senate seat, was mockingly dubbed “Red Tide Rick” after word went around that he’d approved repealing a law that would have cleaned up leaking septic tanks. He was heckled so roundly at one campaign appearance that he ducked out after just a few minutes of abuse.

DeSantis, then just a TV-hungry congressman with no experience in state or local government, saw an opportunity. He promised that if elected governor he would do something about those nasty blooms chasing every tourist away from the waterfront.

When he was elected, here’s what he did: He appointed a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to study the problem. The task force members were all scientists with excellent reputations (I know, I was surprised too!).

In October 2019 the five issued a report that contained a list of science-based recommendations on thwarting the horror movie sequel known as “The Return of the Blue-Green Algae.”

The report included recommendations on improving stormwater treatment systems and forcing agriculture to clean up their runoff rather than just trusting them to do it. These recommendations would be expensive and politically difficult. But you have to remember that they originated with scientists trying to solve a problem, not politicians trying to finesse a situation to maintain the status quo and continue raking in campaign contributions.

Can you guess how many of those tough, science-based recommendations DeSantis pushed through the Legislature? If you said, “Fewer than one,” that’s a point for you. “Zero” would also be an acceptable answer.

The Legislature passed one bill that had the words “Clean Waterways” in the title, but that seemed to be more an aspirational goal than an actual description. It was so weak that environmental groups said it was counterproductive and urged DeSantis to veto it. As frequently occurs, he did the opposite of what they asked.

If you are keeping score, DeSantis has had two chances — once last year and another this year — to introduce bills that would follow the task force recommendations. Each time, said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club, he did nothing.

“So, wow, what a surprise that we still have a problem,” she said. (I think she miiiiight have been employing sarcasm there). “Absolutely nothing has changed for agriculture, and absolutely nothing has changed for stormwater runoff.”

DeSantis has another chance in 2022 to act on the recommendations before his term ends on Jan. 3, 2023, but Costello said she doubts he will. She added, “I don’t hold my breath anymore — except when I go to the beach.”

I sought a comment from the governor’s office about this, but they were apparently too busy prepping him for all the softball questions he’ll get on his next Fox TV appearance to comment. Something to bear in mind, though is that DeSantis didn’t botch this bloom thing on his own.

The bloom blame game

First, let me point out that some good environmental news has come out of the Legislature this year.

Our lawmakers voted to slam the brakes on most (though not all) of the expensive, destructive, and unnecessary MCORES toll road plan they approved just two years ago. They also voted to spend millions creating wildlife corridors among the state’s various preserves and parks, which will benefit wide-ranging wildlife such as panthers.

Our legislators did those things without any help or encouragement from the governor. They could have passed those anti-algae bloom measures without him, too. The fact that they did not means they, too, share in the bloom blame.

So if some fine day you see your state legislator bopping down Main Street like Peter Parker in “Spiderman 3,” be sure to step up and ask: “Why do you like algae blooms more than healthy people and viable waterfront communities?” Then watch ’em squirm and try to change the subject.

algae bloom
Toxic green slime coming out of Lake Okeechobee. Credit: John Moran

Don’t be surprised, though, if your legislator says, “Whoa, wait! I voted for spending millions of your dollars for a big reservoir to be built south of Lake Okeechobee that’s going to make everything A-OK!”

It’s true that last week, amid great fanfare and with a beaming governor on hand, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District signed a pact to work together on building a 10,500-acre reservoir in Palm Beach County.

Right now, when the lake gets too close to full, the polluted and algae-laden water is released to estuaries on both coasts, transferring the problems — and the cyanobacteria — there. The reservoir would provide another option: releasing the water into the reservoir and then into the Everglades itself.

There are a few problems here. One is that the reservoir won’t be ready until six years from now. That’s a lot of time to wait for a fix for an existing algae problem.

Another is that there are serious questions about the design and functioning of the reservoir, according to scientist William Mitsch of Florida Gulf Coast University, who literally wrote the book on wetlands ecology.

To me, though, the biggest problem with the reservoir is that dumping the water out of Lake O doesn’t clean up the water in the lake. It just shifts the problem from one place to another, at your expense. Meanwhile all the people responsible for the pollution can go on doing what they’ve been doing with no penalty.

This is similar to the approach that DeSantis and the Legislature are taking to climate change: spending your money to cope with rising seas but doing nothing that would even slow down the problem. Remember, climate change is the other thing driving the increase in blue-green algae blooms.

If all that doesn’t worry you, consider this: Researchers recently discovered that the toxins produced by those microscopic blue-green algae, when blown into populated areas by the wind, present “a potential human health exposure” with such symptoms as a loss of coordination, muscular twitching, and respiratory paralysis.

That means this isn’t just an ecological and economic concern, but a human health emergency that we’re essentially ignoring. And as the old Calusa warriors could tell you — in between coughing and sneezing from the Spaniards’ cold germs — it’s often those little things that get you.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.