Commentary

New algae blooms expose Florida Gov. DeSantis’ failure to fix pollution

As blue-green algae spreads on Lake O, DeSantis tries to camouflage broken promise with wads of cash

May 12, 2022 7:00 am

This map shows the extent of blue-green algae proliferation on Lake Okeechobee as of May 6, 2022. Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Have you noticed the Democratic candidates for governor — Charlie Crist, Nikki Fried, and Annette Taddeo — milling around like a bunch of lost children lately?

While they vie for which one of them will get to take on the incumbent Republican governor, Ron “Let’s Give the Attorneys Millions” DeSantis, this fall, they look a little discombobulated. That’s because they’re trying to figure out which issue might become a club with which they can whomp him upside the head. Repeatedly, if possible.

Gov. Ron DeSantis discusses manatee protection during a news conference in Jacksonville on May 2, 2022. Source: Screeshot/DeSantis Facebook

Restricting abortion access? Suppressing Black voters? Punishing Disney for having a political opinion he doesn’t like? Forcing locally elected school boards to follow his statewide anti-mask mandate? Focusing on frivolous stuff like squelching “critical race theory,” or creating a “Victims of Communism Day” in the schools while ignoring the far more urgent property insurance crisis, auto insurance crisis, and affordable housing crisis?

He’s guilty of those multiple misdeeds. But so far, polls show he’s successfully ducked being blamed by the voters for any of that.

To me, the biggest threat to DeSantis’ reelection isn’t one of the Democratic candidates. It’s not even human. And it’s tiny.

But the last time anyone checked, it had multiplied so much that it covered 60 square miles of Lake Okeechobee.

No, I don’t mean the coronavirus (which, perhaps thanks to DeSantis’ hostility toward masks, appears to be on the upswing again here in Florida).

I’m talking about toxic blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria. It’s spreading across Lake Okeechobee like a scandalous celebrity rumor on social media. And it’s waaaaaay nastier.

A free pass for polluters

“Health alerts have been issued for blue-green algal toxins found in Florida waterways,” WPBF-TV reported on Monday, noting that they’d been located in two sections of the lake.

The alerts say to steer clear of the bloom and avoid swimming or fishing there. Can do, hoss! Nobody wants to swim in green ooze that scientists say can damage your brain. After years of exposure to toxic Florida politicians, my brain already feels as frah-gee-lay as the leg lamp in “A Christmas Story.”

Lake Okeechobee is huge. It stretches for 730 square miles, so 60 of those is (carry the two, add the remainder, take off your shoes and count your toes) only 8.2 percent of its total surface. Compared to the whole lake that’s not a lot — not yet.

But the weather is heating up as we head into the summer months. Heat combined with the lake’s heavy pollution load tends to set toxic algae to multiplying like the Tribbles on “Star Trek.”

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

Given the right conditions, “in a week, a waterway as large as Lake Okeechobee can see a majority of its … expanse become horribly slimed,” the editorial board of TCPalm.com noted recently.

Meanwhile, hurricane season officially starts on June 1 (although the meteorology folks are already tracking the first tropical wave of the season). Forecasters predict another above-average season, with a total of 19 named storms dumping tons of rain.

During hurricane season, heavy rains often fill the lake to the point that the Army Corps of Engineers starts worrying about the Herbert Hoover Dike collapsing and the lake sloshing out and killing nearby residents.

To avoid a repeat of the tragedy of 1928, the Army dumps a big load of water out. Some of it goes to the St. Lucie River in the east and some to the Caloosahatchee River to the west. It winds up in two brackish estuaries.

No one who lives there wants this infusion of fresh water, because the lake water is carrying the blue-green algae bloom with it.

That’s why this fledgling bloom is a harbinger of what could be another ugly summer — a time when tourism- and fishing-related businesses fall prey to a thick layer of what looks like guacamole and smells like the worst litter box in the world.

A bloom like that would remind voters that, despite his best efforts to avoid the truth, DeSantis is a big-time promise-breaker.

“He has given a free pass to large and small polluters all over the state,” said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club. “That’s his badge of shame that he hides.”

Ron’s big boat ride

Stuart resident Cyndi Lenz, a nurse, has been through some major algae blooms that closed beaches and chased tourists away. She remembers when the stench was so bad her neighbors had to wear masks just to breathe.

She also remembers when a gubernatorial candidate named DeSantis visited the St. Lucie River in 2018. His promises then gave her hope for the future.

He was a little-known congressman running against a Big Sugar puppet named Adam Putnam for the Republican nomination. Because the sugar companies had been blamed for Lake Okeechobee’s pollution problems, the DeSantis campaign thought it would be smart for him to show up at the scene of an algae bloom.

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

He took a boat ride with a couple of other politicians and talked to scientists, local business owners, and environmental activists about the causes and impacts of the blooms. He told reporters that the tour helped him better understand how blooms harm local businesses, according to TCPalm.com.

“These are mom-and-pop people,” he said. “These aren’t real wealthy, big corporations. This is kind of the lifeblood of what a local economy is all about.”

Maybe while we’re remembering the victims of communism, we should observe a day for the victims of Florida’s algae blooms, too.

We should remember the owners of motels, the charter boat captains, the beach wedding photographers, the car rental places, and the seafood restaurants advertising a fresh catch. All of them lose business when an algae bloom breaks out.

The governor seems to have forgotten all about them.

“Now I have no confidence in the man,” Lenz told me this week.

Not only did DeSantis fail to do what he promised about the blue-green algae blooms, she said, but he’s endorsed Senate President Wilton Simpson to be the next agriculture commissioner. Simpson is as big a stooge for Big Sugar as Putnam was when he was the ag commissioner.

“Nothing has changed,” she said with a sigh.

Great ideas we’re ignoring

We know now that DeSantis makes a lot of promises that he has little interest in keeping — buying the bankrupt Garcon Point Bridge in the Panhandle to lower the tolls, for instance. But, back in 2018, desperate people assumed he was sincere when he promised to rid Florida of the ugly algae.

And he started strong! He appointed a Blue-Green Algae Task Force full of actual scientists. They held a series of meetings and issued what they called “a consensus document” — a playbook for cleaning up the state’s rivers, lakes, and bays.

If DeSantis were an NFL quarterback, this is the point at which you’d say he was handed a surefire playbook, then fumbled the ball, declared victory, and walked off the field.

The Florida House. Credit: Michael Moline

The task force’s recommendations have yet to be enacted by the Legislature, and DeSantis hasn’t pushed them to do so. Instead, our fine lawmakers passed a platter of wishful thinking they named the “Clean Waterways Act,” perhaps to show what a delightful sense of humor they possess.

“The Blue-Green Algae Task Force was nothing but a show,” complained Costello, who has grown frustrated at seeing their good work ignored year after year.

For instance, the bill didn’t require farmers to monitor or reduce the pollution running off their land. “Instead, the new law continues what is effectively a voluntary program — one so forgiving that no rancher or farmer has been sanctioned for water-quality violations,” the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2020.

Environmental groups begged DeSantis to veto the bill and force the Legislature to go back and do it right (just like the power play he used when legislators produced a redistricting map he didn’t like). Instead, DeSantis signed it into law.

“Our children and future generations serve as a stark reminder of what’s at stake when discussing the importance of creating a clean, healthy, and stable environmental foundation for their future,” he said at the time, not meaning one word of it.

Eve Samples. Source: Twitter profile

“Why do we have a Blue-Green Algae Task Force if the state isn’t going to adopt its recommendations?” Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades, asked me this week. I am suggesting we rename it the “Great Ideas We’re Ignoring Task Force.”

The buck stops over there.

Why did DeSantis balk at following through on his promise?

Perhaps because really cleaning up the state’s pollution would require getting tough on those “real wealthy, big corporations” that are major campaign contributors. A man intent on running for re-election or even higher office has to keep in mind where his money comes from. You notice he didn’t attack Disney until after the company stopped giving him money.

This is not a new low in Florida. It’s just business as usual.

In 2001, the Legislature ordered a 75 percent reduction in the pollution flowing into Lake Okeechobee. The deadline was 2015. As of 2021, the amount flowing into the lake was about the same as it was in 2001, Samples told me. Nobody has bothered to enforce the law and there’s no penalty for ignoring it.

So the pollution continues flowing unabated, and that blue-green tint continues to creep across aerial images of the lake.

When a TCPalm.com reporter contacted the members of the committee this month to ask their opinion about all this, they blamed the feckless legislators.

“Sometimes I wonder if any of the Legislature listens anymore,” one of them said.

But none of them blamed the man who appointed their task force, and who’s gotten exactly what he wanted out of the Legislature. And that’s fine with the man who’s apparently got a plaque on his desk that says, “The Buck Stops Over There Somewhere.”

The Ron DeSantis Prize Patrol

To disguise his failure to keep his promise, DeSantis has been running around the state like the Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol handing out checks the size of surfboards.

Each time, he’s plunked down millions in taxpayer money to deal with the symptoms of what’s gone haywire in our waterways and avoid any discussion of the cause.

So far, Lenz told me, he’s got lots of her neighbors fooled.

Part of the problem, she said, is that 900 new people move into the state every day. Most of the newcomers have no idea about what DeSantis promised, what fuels algae blooms, or how bad they can be. They are as unschooled in this subject as they are in what would happen in a Category 5 storm. As a result, they are easily distracted by DeSantis’ diversions.

Just last week, the Ron DeSantis Prize Patrol popped up at the Jacksonville Zoo. He was there to tout a budget item that would set aside $30 million for rescue and rehabilitation efforts for manatees. He bragged that this would be an increase of $17 million from the previous year.

Not mentioned: More than 1,000 manatees starved to death last year because toxic algae blooms killed the seagrass they normally eat, and nothing DeSantis has done so far will stop that from happening again.

The deaths for 2022 so far are already nearing 600, with the year not even half over.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Save the Manatee Club, just sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allowing Florida to get away with weak pollution standards, endangering the manatees. The EPA turned around and pointed the finger at Florida for doing such a poor job with pollution.

But no one pointed a finger at DeSantis. Once again, he’s evaded responsibility.

Perhaps his gubernatorial rivals will decide to whomp him over the head with this. Anyone who voted for DeSantis last time thinking he’d be good for the environment could look at this Lake Okeechobee bloom and see a sound reason for why he’s not worthy of re-electing.

“Well,” you might say, “I don’t live near Lake O, or the St. Lucie, or the Caloosahatchee. That means that algae bloom mess doesn’t affect me.”

Oh, but it does, Sunshine. You see, Lake O isn’t the only place where pollution is rampant and toxic algae has erupted as a result.

Folks in Sarasota, for instance, have been plugging up their nostrils for the past week because of a foul-smelling blue-green algae bloom in the bay.

Meanwhile, up in Tallahassee, the Leon County Health Department has issued a warning about blue-green algae blooming in 288-acre Lake Munson.

“The lake has a history of severe water quality and ecological problems,” WCTV-TV reported. Lots of that going around!

Florida recently ranked first in the nation for polluted lakes. How many more of Florida’s waterways will sprout an algae bloom over the summer? How will DeSantis try to avoid being held responsible?

This is why I think we should challenge DeSantis to a debate — not with Crist, Fried, or Taddeo, but with a massive algae bloom.

Sure, it’s not human. But that stuff smells strong enough to stand up on two legs like a not-at-all-jolly green giant and roar into a microphone. Really, it doesn’t have to say a word — just confront DeSantis with proof of what he failed to do.

Besides, one whiff of that awful stuff and even our anti-mask governor will be reaching for an N-95.

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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, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. 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.

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