To fix Florida’s latest toxic algae crisis, fix the DEP

June 3, 2021 7:00 am
algae bloom

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

Dear Gov. DeSantis,

Hello again! I wrote you a letter last year and you didn’t respond, but it’s OK. I figure you’re pretty busy, what with battling the cruise industry and Big Tech.

I’m writing to you again because you’re facing a great opportunity right now, and I want to be sure you don’t miss out.

Here’s what got my attention: Another top official in your administration resigned. This time, it’s the head of your Department of Environmental Protection, Noah Valenstein, bailing on you just as your re-election campaign is drawing opposition.

He turned in his resignation on May 8 — but instead of announcing this to the public, the DEP sat on the story until reporters began asking questions last week. The agency treated the news as if it were a sinkhole that had opened up in a phosphate gypsum stack.

I’m sure that disclosure delay was just a gaffe, and not part of a deliberate pattern by your administration of hiding bad news from the public — say, like the Department of Health refusing to release COVID-19 data over the Memorial Day weekend.

Of course, those Negative Nellies in the media claimed this resignation is part of a bad trend for you.

Noah Valenstein, former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Credit: DEP

“Valenstein is the latest top official to leave DeSantis’ administration this year,” the Miami Herald reported. “Those who departed earlier include Jared Moskowitz, the emergency management director; Shane Strum, the governor’s chief of staff; Jonathan Satter, secretary of the Department of Management Services; Chad Poppell, secretary of the Department of Children and Families; and Halsey Beshears, secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.”

I bet any resemblance to rodent reactions to a maritime emergency is purely a coincidence. These folks just got better jobs all of a sudden thanks to how you’ve improved Florida’s economy, right?

However, Valenstein’s departure comes at a bad time for you. He’s leaving just as your signature environmental initiative — battling toxic blue-green algae blooms — is blowing up in your face.

As a candidate, you promised you’d stop those pollution-fueled blooms. As governor, you appointed a task force of scientists to make recommendations about how. They did, but what the Legislature then passed bore only a mild resemblance to what the experts suggested.

Despite a clamor from environmental groups for you to veto the bill and press for something stronger, you signed the ironically titled “Clean Waterways Act” into law. In retrospect, that move makes former president George W. Bush’s premature “Mission Accomplished” banner look downright statesmanlike.

Although your administration sent out a feel-good press release about the bill-signing, the blue-green algae ignored it. Instead of falling into line and going away, the blooms have come back big-time. They’re afflicting both the east and west coasts, just like in 2018.

The blooms have gotten so bad in Palm Beach County that three cities had to alert their residents not to drink their tap water — it contains sickening levels of algae toxins. Twenty high schools are bringing in bottled water for their students.

To make matters worse, one of the affected cities is Palm Beach, where the residents include a certain former president who helped you win your last election. You don’t want to get him mad, that’s for sure. He might give you a derisive nickname.

And yet, just three days prior to Valenstein’s resignation, the DEP announced that it would not set legal limits on the cyanotoxins that make these blue-green blooms so harmful.

How could your environmental chief do this to you at such a dire moment? Didn’t he realize he was supposed to dive head-first under the bus and take the bloom blame?

Now, you could replace him at DEP with someone who’s exactly like Valenstein: a genial professional with years of experience in deferring to political realities. I think that would be a mistake almost as boneheaded as signing a transgender ban bill on the first day of Pride Month at a school founded by an accused pedophile preacher.

Instead, you should announce that you’ve picked the perfect person to serve as the state’s top environmental protector: a Florida native who’s spent 20 years studying how the DEP works (or doesn’t), someone who cherishes Florida’s natural bounty and is a big fan of its award-winning state park system.

I’m talking, of course, about me.

Why you need someone new

Think about how perfect this would be. I’ve been covering DEP for two decades, dating to when David “Dealmaker Dave” Struhs ran the department under then-Gov. Jeb Bush. I’ve documented the declining enforcement of pollution rules, instances of political interference, and overly permissive permitting practices.

Could there be a downside in picking me to run the DEP amid a crisis? Well, sure. I’ve never been a state employee, never been anyone’s boss (unless you count my kids), and never lobbied the Legislature. Honestly, I’m not sure I could do that last chore with a straight face.

But I hear you’re a fan of gambling (so says the Seminole Tribe), so why not bet on someone who could bring a fresh perspective?

After all, it’s not like I’d be the first totally unqualified person you’d hired for an important state job. Remember your chief resilience officer, Julia Nesheiwat? She had a background in military security and hostage negotiations, but not a drop of experience in dealing with climate change. (The hostage negotiation experience might have helped in dealing with the Legislature, but that wasn’t part of her job.)

Sure, she quit after less than six months, but not before producing a surprisingly good report on how the state has failed to help local governments cope with rising sea levels and increasing temperatures.

Oops! Sorry, I forgot that when she quit, you gave the resilience job to Valenstein to handle along with his original position. That means when your DEP boss resigned, he quit two jobs, not just one.

But I’m willing to take on both — and for just one salary, too.

I already know how to handle the public relations angle on this algae crisis. I’ll play it the way Valenstein handled the recent Piney Point toxic waste situation. I will tell reporters, “Gee, I don’t know why my predecessors repeatedly screwed up the way they did, but we’ll make it right this time.”

But unlike all those predecessors, I propose to take a different tack on this problem.

I propose actually fixing it. Crazy, huh?

Was it an empty promise?

Here’s the key. Make the DEP actually protect the environment.

Sounds like kooky talk, I know, but hear me out.

There are still good people in the agency, but their efforts to do the right thing are stymied by the way the DEP’s changed in 20 years. We need to remove the impediments and encourage them to fulfill the agency’s original mission.

I quizzed a bunch of environmental activists about what changes they’d make if they ran DEP right now. They all talked about doing a lot more than what was in your ineffective Clean Waterways Act.

“Stop agricultural pollution at its source,” said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club. “That means mandatory, verified, and confirmed protective best management practices to keep stormwater and irrigation runoff from receiving water bodies. That would require retaining and either recycling or treating that water before it leaves the farm.” (The current “best management practices” are voluntary, which doesn’t seem like the “best” way to stop pollution, does it?)

Caloosahatchee river algae in a mason jar
Caloosahatchee river algae. Credit: Captains for Clean Water

Eve Samples of the Friends of the Everglades said she’d make DEP reverse course on its decision not to set a limit on the toxins in blue-green algae — a suggestion I am sure you would support, given your promise to deep-six the blooms.

She also suggested giving DEP’s employees incentives to crack down on polluters instead of pushing them to be quicker about approving new permits to pollute. And she recommended hiring back the Everglades scientists laid off under former Gov. Rick Scott. She also said the DEP should return to the federal government the power to issue federal wetlands permits, something the Trump administration dumped on the already overworked DEP on its way out the door.

Ryan Smart of the Florida Springs Council sent me a bunch of bullet points:

  • “Draft and adopt Outstanding Florida Springs Basin Management Action Plans that achieve water quality goals within 20 years.
  • “Adopt uniform rules for preventing groundwater withdrawals that are harmful to Outstanding Florida Springs.
  • “Conduct groundwater monitoring to verify the effectiveness of adopted agricultural best management practices at representative sites.
  • “Take immediate enforcement actions against polluters who are violating state laws and rules, including agricultural producers who have not fully implemented best management practices.”

Honestly, these all sound like common-sense things DEP should have been doing all along, don’t they? It’s like saying, “The key to stopping the spread of an airborne disease is to put a small barrier over everyone’s nose and mouth.” Well, DUH.

The most detailed suggestions came from Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who now runs the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. One of them was: End the practice of “administratively continued permits” — in other words, letting polluters keep polluting for years under expired permits, instead of making them reapply and face scrutiny for their poor performance.

And he said he’d restore “career-service protections” to DEP program administrators, making them no longer subject to so much political pressure. Those protections, by the way, were stripped away under Florida’s last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles. Surely, restoring them is something you, as a staunch Republican, can embrace.

So, here’s my promise: Hire me as the new DEP boss and I will do all of these things to make DEP a true environmental protector. I will also push for enacting all of the recommendations of the Blue-Green Algae Task Force.

DEP has experienced a long decline from a regulator to an enabler. Reversing that won’t be easy but, if I succeed, constituents from all parties will be impressed. Remember, you barely won the election in 2018, so you need to do something to attract people from all political viewpoints, not just the ones that worship at the altar of Fox News.

Do this, and when you’re giving campaign talks and people ask what you did to stop the algae blooms, you won’t be stuck just citing how much of the taxpayers’ money you spent on what turned out to be a failed effort. That’s going to sound like a waste.

No, you need to show that you flexed some muscle against the polluters who have for years treated our bays, rivers, lakes, and springs like their personal toilet.

Will doing these things make some businesses mad? Probably. You’ll get an earful from Associated Industries, Big Ag, the pulp and paper factories, the Florida Home Builders Association, septic sludge distributors, etc. But you’ll be praised by the tourism industry, the commercial and recreational fisher folk, and other important parts of our economy.

Anyway, you’ve shown that you’re not afraid to tangle with big money folks in the cruise ship industry and Big Tech. Surely, ticking off some polluters shouldn’t worry you at all.

Of course, if it turns out you were making empty promises in 2018, and you value the polluters’ support of your reelection more than you do the average citizen’s desire for algae-free waterways and clean drinking water, then I don’t think I can work for you.

And if that’s the case, then maybe you can’t work for Florida either, and maybe someone else should get a shot at occupying the governor’s mansion after 2022.

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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.