Column: Gov. Scott clueless in lake crisis

An outbreak of brown algae has turned the Mosquito Lagoon east of Orlando and the Indian River murky. Long celebrated as one of the nation's richest estuaries, the Indian River is in a spiral of decline. Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP
An outbreak of brown algae has turned the Mosquito Lagoon east of Orlando and the Indian River murky. Long celebrated as one of the nation's richest estuaries, the Indian River is in a spiral of decline.Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel via AP
Published March 10 2016
Updated March 10 2016

As a devastating deluge of polluted water darkens two coasts of Florida and threatens their tourist economies, Gov. Rick Scott is once again a flaky phantom.

Billions of gallons spiked with agricultural waste are being pumped daily from Lake Okeechobee toward the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, browning the blue coastal waters, choking sea grass beds and crippling small businesses that depend on a healthy marine ecology.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says the discharges are necessary because the water in Lake Okeechobee is too high and the old Hoover dike is too weak. Scott says it's all President Barack Obama's fault for not rebuilding the dike, which is absurd.

Scott, who aspires to be a U.S. senator, either has no clue how the appropriations process works or he'll simply say any brainless thing to duck responsibility.

A brief civics lesson for Florida's dim and furtive governor: The president cannot write a check for major capital projects. Congress is in charge of funding, and Congress happens to be controlled by Republicans.

Being a Republican himself, Scott should fly straight to Washington and persuade his colleagues to rebuild the lake dike and fund a flow-way to the Everglades for the excess water.

Why hasn't that happened? One reason is that Scott has even less clout with Congress than he does in Tallahassee.

Currently, the state Legislature is gutting or discarding basically all of the governor's major budget proposals, including a goofball request for a $250 million honey pot to lure private companies to the state.

Scott is the emptiest of suits. He'll pop up whenever a new business opens, count the jobs and take credit for them. In times of crisis, though, he's a spectral presence.

Privately, the governor is busy muscling special interests to bankroll his Senate run in 2018. Some of his biggest donors are the worst polluters of Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, so you can understand why he's been hard to find lately.

Scott's pals in Big Sugar have been back-pumping dirty water from their cane fields into the lake, which through Friday was being emptied into the St. Lucie River at a rate exceeding 2 billion gallons a day. The Army Corps says it will soon drop the daily flow to 1.2 billion gallons.

So far this year, more than 72 billion gallons has been expelled toward the Treasure Coast, ruining the salinity of the St. Lucie Estuary, chasing sea life from the Indian River Lagoon and creating a foul brown plume miles into the Atlantic.

The visual is repelling tourists who might otherwise fish, swim or paddle-board. This is also happening along the Gulf Coast, where Lake Okeechobee discharges gush from the Caloosahatchee River.

Under pressure from exasperated business owners and officials, Scott last week declared a state of emergency for St. Lucie, Martin and Lee counties, citing "extensive environmental harm" and "severe economic losses."

The governor used the opportunity to bash Obama, calling out the president six times in a five-paragraph press release from his feeble Department of Environmental Protection.

Never once did Scott mention the Republican leaders of Congress, who have the power but not the enthusiasm to allocate the $800 million needed to repair the Lake Okeechobee dike. If they put that item in a budget, Obama would sign it in a heartbeat.

The same is true for Everglades restoration. Showing zero sense of urgency, Congress continues to lag far behind on its commitment to share the costs 50-50 with the state.

Every year when it rains hard, an algae-spawning tide from Lake Okeechobee is flushed toward the coastal bays and beaches. No president yet has stepped in to stop corporate farms from using the lake as their toilet, or stop the Army Corps from opening the pump valves.

If Obama tried that, Big Sugar (and Scott) would scream bloody murder.

As for the governor's "state of emergency," it's barely just a piece of paper. The agencies in charge are officially in "observation mode." I'm not kidding.

TC Palm newspapers reported that the head of the state Division of Emergency Management was attending a conference in New Orleans last week. What better place than Bourbon Street from which to ponder Florida's coastal pollution crisis?

Scott himself would benefit from spending time at the marinas or waterfront motels in Stuart, meeting the working people whose dreams are drowning in a flood of silt.

But this governor prefers upbeat media opportunities where he can talk about new jobs — not dying jobs. He'd much rather cut a ribbon at a gas station than hear from a boat captain who can no longer find any fish.

© 2016 Miami Herald

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