DeSantis’ budget on algae blooms offers plenty of irony

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

If you live in Florida, you will never suffer from an irony deficiency.

Just look around you. We have real estate developments with names like “The Preserve” and “Wilderness” and “Cypress Trace,” built in places where nothing natural is preserved, there is no wilderness left, and you won’t find a trace of cypress anymore.

Florida’s got more irony than Alanis Morrissette has songs. Oranges are our state fruit, orange juice our official state beverage, and the orange blossom our official state flower, yet oranges are not native to Florida.

And in the political realm, consider this: A majority of Florida voters are registered as Democrats, yet Republicans have controlled the Governor’s Mansion and both houses of the Legislature for more than 20 years. The top GOP officeholders say they’re avowed enemies of Obamacare, yet Florida leads the nation in enrollments for that program.

I was reminded of this basic fact of Florida life last week while reading over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed budget for next year, a budget that boasts about what a great job he’s doing protecting the environment.

That section of the budget is headlined “Florida Leads on the Environment” and starts off by saying, “Florida’s environmental resources are vital to our state’s prosperity. Since taking office, Gov. DeSantis has implemented major reforms to achieve more for Florida’s environment.”

But when you dig into the details, you see the irony popping out all over like a pattern in one of those Magic Eye 3-D pictures.

DeSantis wants to spend $1 billion over four years helping local governments be “resilient” in the face of climate change — albeit without ever actually using the term “climate change.”

Yet he also wants to spend $700 million on three new toll roads nobody wants, thus increasing the car and truck traffic that produces emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Ironic, isn’t it?

And while his budget proclaims him a champion of the environment, he’s also proposing to cut in half the money spent on the popular Florida Forever environmental land-buying program — a program that won support from 75 percent of the voters in 2014. .

But perhaps the best example of irony lies in his call for spending $25 million to combat toxic algae blooms.

As with his push for “resiliency” while putting more cars on the road, DeSantis wants to spend your tax money on battling toxic algae while avoiding taking the steps that would actually stop it.

This is one of those times when irony is expensive and dangerous.

Reliving the Summer of Slime

Remember the Summer of Slime in 2018? Seemed like toxic algae was everywhere back then.

A Red Tide bloom that started the year before hung around for months, turning the water a rusty color all along the Gulf coast. Meanwhile, blue-green algae filled Lake Okeechobee and spread to estuaries on the Atlantic and Gulf sides of the state. The stench of dead fish and the choking toxins in the air chased away tourists and hurt all kinds of waterfront businesses.

For the blue-green algae, this was a repeat performance. In 2016, thick, putrid layers of the stuff, looking like guacamole dip and smelling like death on a cracker, invaded Martin County’s waterways, forcing them to close the beach for the Fourth of July.

This nasty stuff didn’t just kill marine life and tourist reservations. As TCPalm reported recently, “Exposure to toxic blue-green algae can cause immediate symptoms such as a runny nose, watery eyes, and trouble breathing. Long-term exposure has been linked to liver disease and suspected of causing neurological ailments years down the road.”

Toxic algae blooms are natural phenomena. Red Tide has been documented in Florida dating to the Spanish conquistadors. The problem is that modern pollution and a hotter climate tends to make them more frequent and longer lasting. Blue-green algae outbreaks, for instance, have plagued Lake Okeechobee for 20 years, fueled by polluted runoff from nearby farms and ranches.

Why, you may ask, hasn’t the state done something about this?

In 2001, the Legislature ordered a 75 percent reduction in the pollution flowing into the lake by 2015. As of 2020, the amount flowing into the lake was about the same as it was in 2001, because nobody bothered enforcing the law and there was no penalty for ignoring it.

Thing got so bad in the Summer of Slime that toxic algae actually became a political issue, with then-Gov. Rick Scott being dubbed “Red Tide Rick.”

During his run for governor, DeSantis promised to do something about all the toxic algae. When he was elected, he did, in fact, do something. He appointed a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to study the problem.

The five task force members he picked are all distinguished scientists, believe it or not. Shocking, isn’t it? Do you feel dizzy? Need to a minute to recover? I sure did.

The task force met about a dozen times and in October 2019 issued what they titled “a consensus document,” although a better term would be “How to Defeat That Nasty Algae.” It offered what the scientists called “specific science-based recommendations to help expedite restoration of water bodies in Florida that are continually plagued by blue-green algae blooms.”

Some of the language was pretty blunt, for scientists: “Available data suggest that a substantial number of stormwater treatment systems throughout the state fail to achieve their presumed performance standards.” In other words, we’re awash in poop.

At that point, environmental activists thought DeSantis was doing a good job of following through on his campaign promise.

“He did do the right thing by putting scientists on the task force and they came up with some solid recommendations that should be followed,” Eve Samples, executive director of the environmental group Friends of the Everglades, told me.

But take a wild guess how many of those recommendations have been adopted.

‘We’re fooling ourselves’

Some of what the task force suggested was plugged into a bill that became known as the Clean Waterways Act. I don’t know if the people who gave it that name intended it to be ironic, but it sure ended up that way.

By the time the bill had wended its way through the labyrinth that is our Legislature, the anti-pollution measures it included had been, if you’ll pardon the pun, watered down. By the time it passed the last floor vote, the first word in the name of the Clean Waterways Act should probably have been placed in quotes.

For instance, it didn’t require farmers to monitor or reduce the pollution running off their land. It was as if the state had vowed to stop speeding but didn’t want to hire any extra troopers to pull over speeders and just asked everyone to slow down, pretty please.

Environmental groups, disappointed, urged DeSantis to veto the bill and push for something stronger. Instead, he signed it into law — a toothless law that won’t do diddly, but it sounds good when you brag about it during a campaign appearance.

The task force report contained a lot more in the way of recommendations — stepping up enforcement of pollution rules, setting up a statewide water-quality monitoring system, and doing more than just trusting farmers and dairies to do what’s right, to name a few. Those didn’t seem to register as important with either the governor or the Legislature.

“Many of those recommendations were left untouched by the Clean Waterways Act,” Samples said. “We’re fooling ourselves if we think we’ve done anything to avoid another toxic algae bloom.”

The regulators at the state Department of Environmental Protection work for DeSantis. He could order them to step up enforcement, at the very least. But that would require reversing a trend toward going easy on polluters that started around the time Jeb Bush moved into the governor’s mansion and reached its apex under Scott.

I contacted the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to ask if they’d be following any of those other task force recommendations.

“The agency is committed fully to enforcing all environmental laws,” DEP Press Secretary Weesam Khoury told me via email, pointing out that the state has also jacked up the fines for environmental crimes such as sewage spills.

As for the money in the governor’s proposed budget, she said it “includes increased monitoring, data collection efforts and analyses.” It also includes money for trying out “innovative technologies to address algae blooms.”

So here’s how I see it: The governor vows to fix a problem and appoints a bunch of scientists to tell him what to do. They do. Then he and other leaders blow off those recommendations, guaranteeing the problem is not solved.

But here’s the irony. By not following the scientists’ roadmap to clean water, the governor can continue announcing he’s spending millions of dollars to fight the problem, and he can issue a press release bragging on himself as an environmental advocate.

He’s not a Hero of the Earth because he ended the toxic algae blooms, a step that would be hard work and would probably upset major campaign contributors. He’s a Hero of the Earth because he continues throwing money at a problem that will never be fixed.

In Florida politics, we often prefer the image to the actual. We value the sizzle over the steak. But if you genuinely believe that “Florida’s environmental resources are vital to our state’s prosperity,” then it might worry you that we haven’t done a thing to halt the algae blooms. A global pandemic has already hurt our economy this year. Can you imagine the effect another Summer of Slime would have?

Maybe the real problem here is that our state capital in Tallahassee is an hour away from the nearest beach. Maybe we should move the governor’s mansion close to the Gulf of Mexico, right smack on the shoreline. That way, the occupant would have a much harder time ignoring the unpleasant sights and smells that result from embracing irony over action.

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 five 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 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently 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.