All that talk about solving Florida’s horrible algae outbreaks? Legislature comes up short so far

Dead fish killed by red tide in Southwest Florida. WKRC photo

Florida made national news last year when nasty algae outbreaks fouled the coasts and sent dead sea creatures washing ashore.

The environmental crisis was a campaign issue during the fall election, as pricey waterfront mansions suddenly overlooked green, stinking waterways and tourists fled beaches because of dead fish and harmful fumes.

Politicians promised to attack the problem. But the legislation that’s in the Florida Legislature now comes up short, according to some scientists and to the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club.

A key problem: The legislation ignores the first important task: which is to prevent the sewage, manure and fertilizer pollution that makes red tide outbreaks in the Gulf worse and fuels outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae in the state’s lakes, rivers, and springs.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Why wouldn’t Florida pay for a pound of cure?” Deborah Foote, Government Affairs & Political Director for the Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club, told lawmakers at a legislative committee.

Also, by insisting that red tide is a just a natural problem, the cost of dealing with the environmental catastrophe is foisted on taxpayers, and the industrial agricultural operations that pollute Lake Okeechobee are off the hook, opponents say.

The pollution that fuels the algae outbreaks ends up on the coasts every time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases Lake Okeechobee water west through the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf and east through the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic.

The legislation sets up a task force to further study the issue and find ways to “control” and “mitigate” the algae outbreaks using as-yet unidentified technology. It’s sponsored in the Senate by Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters, who is the statewide chair of the Florida Republican Party, and Southwest Florida Republican Reps. Tommy Gregory and Michael Grant the House. The legislation envisions a partnership between the private Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and the government Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg.

Some scientists are expressing concern that the state would simply hand out tax money to a single institution – Mote Marine – without having a competitive, peer-reviewed grant process to determine which is the best scientific institute for the job. They say that sets a bad precedent because it would make scientific funding political, rather than based on qualifications and experience.  The House bill (HB1135) passed the House Agriculture and Natural Resources subcommittee Tuesday and the Senate bill (SB 1552) faces a similar committee vote.

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

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