Turning the Toxic Tide: Our 5-Part Playbook for Saving Florida’s Waters

One of the most immediate crises facing Lee County and much of Florida is poor water quality, putting the economic and environmental future of Lee County at risk. Lee Future is fighting to address these problems so that residents can enjoy a sustainable future. How can we reverse the crippling damage caused by blue-green algae in our waterways? The editorial boards of six Florida newspapers have proposed a playbook of specific governmental actions to start reversing the degradation of our environment.

Originally Published on TCPalm

Turning the Toxic Tide is a series of editorials published collectively by the six editorial boards of USA TODAY Network-Florida, with the goal of providing an environmental road map for the state’s new governor, legislators and congressional delegation. This is the seventh in the series. 

If you had a crystal ball, you might gaze into the orb for a glimpse of Florida’s future.

Fifty years from now, will Florida remain the lush, green paradise of tourism brochures? Or will the toxic tides that have swamped our state turn us into a blue-green dystopia?

Toxins in cyanobacteria — blue-green algae — that routinely clogs Florida waters are linked to Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s disease. Imagine the potential fruits of this poisonous tree a generation from now: communities in Florida where clusters of these ailments emerge.

Imagine waterfront homes that go begging for buyers, beaches continually littered with dead wildlife, coastal communities where economies have crashed because no one wants to go in — or even near — the water.

Imagine oil spills off the coast, springs and streams ruined by pollutants. Our tourism industry could wither; development could grind to a halt as the state’s ecological problems mount.

It may sound like the stuff of apocalyptic science fiction. But for too long, Florida has been willing to pay an environmental price for continued growth and prosperity.

Now that bill has come due. Our only choice is to turn the toxic tide.

How do we do that?

Since October, the USA TODAY Network-Florida has detailed the challenges facing our waterways and called upon elected leaders to embrace a five-pronged approach for solving them:

  1.  Fix the broken environmental regulatory system in Florida, making sure the priority is to protect our waters — not protect the regulated community from enforcement.
  2. Reinvent Florida’s stripped-down approach to managing growth.
  3. Fund and finish building long-planned Everglades and estuary restoration projects.
  4. Curtail the problem of human waste, including pollution from septic tanks, sewage plants and biosolids.
  5. Ban offshore drilling in federal waters near Florida’s shores.

There has been some progress. But it’s not nearly enough.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has so far governed as the Teddy Roosevelt-style conservationist he promised to be. He’s forced out public officials who didn’t agree with his priorities and replaced them with key environmental voices. He appointed a Blue-Green Algae Task Force and Florida’s first chief science officer, called for a major boost to Everglades spending and directed the Department of Environmental Protection to “adamantly oppose” offshore drilling and fracking.

The Florida Legislature appropriated $682 million for environmental spending this year, even more than DeSantis sought.

Florida’s congressional delegation has unanimously opposed offshore drilling. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Treasure Coast Republican, also has pushed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to modify the regulation schedule for Lake Okeechobee to reduce the need for damaging discharges to the coasts. GOP Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples has pressed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to share research into the potential health implications of Florida’s toxic algae and co-sponsored federal legislation to prohibit the use of sunscreens in national marine sanctuaries where the chemicals could harm coral.

In many communities around the state, local officials have fought for septic-to-sewer conversions and upgraded sewer infrastructure.

Yet even as you read these words, blue-green algae is clogging parts of the St. Johns River; clumps have shown up in Cape Coral. Experts say conditions are ripe for another toxic blue-green algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee this summer.

We still have miles to go.

Our elected leaders must do better.

Many important bills went nowhere or were weakened significantly during the session that just wrapped in Tallahassee. And some new legislation could inflict even more harm on Florida’s environment and imperiled waters.

One measure, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Will Robinson of Bradenton and Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota, would have required mandatory inspections of septic tanks to ensure they aren’t leaching nutrients into waterways. Yet even with a new study showing widespread septic dysfunction is a significant contributor to pollution in and around the Caloosahatchee River, the bill fell victim to complaints about cost from rural Florida lawmakers.

A proposal to fine municipalities for sewage spills or force them to invest in new infrastructure stalled. A proposal for stronger statewide stormwater management didn’t even get a hearing.

bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Erin Grall of Vero Beach to curtail the application of Class B biosolids (sludge) in the upper St. Johns River watershed was watered down after it was incorporated into a larger omnibus bill.

On some key issues we’ve spotlighted, like the need for statewide growth management, the only movement was in the wrong direction. Environmental advocates, including 1000 Friends of Florida, have lambasted a provision in House Bill 7103, which gives developers even greater say in comprehensive plans adopted by newly created towns, and makes citizens who unsuccessfully oppose local comprehensive plan amendments liable for attorney’s fees.

The bill passed, though 1000 Friends of Florida and others are calling on DeSantis to veto it. He should.

Undercutting responsible growth management is the exact opposite of what Florida needs.

Yet that the Legislature signed off on this suggests that even now, some see the toxic tides lapping our shores as a mere nuisance, an acceptable price to pay for prosperity.

When we began this series, we invoked historic environmental crises such as the Love Canal and the Cuyahoga River fire. Had modern-day reticence reigned then, the Cuyahoga might still catch fire; the “Superfund” law, passed in the wake of Love Canal, might have been weakened to the point of pointlessness.

Instead, these crises prompted decisive government action.

Our times, our crises, demand the same.

So let’s keep moving. Let’s keep up the pressure on lawmakers, demand better legislation and tougher enforcement, and sacrifice if we must.

The future of Florida — our future — is at stake.

Spread the word by sharing with your friends, family, and neighbors.

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