At the end of August, a large, disgusting algae outbreak slimed Old Tampa Bay. Two months earlier, an algae outbreak in the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers turned the river bright green, smelled like raw sewage, and made thousands of fish go belly up. Water with algae outbreaks like this is so toxic that health authorities say you shouldn't touch it, much less drink it or swim in it. It can give you rashes, respiratory problems, and even kill you.
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., found that out the hard way. He swam in the same type of toxic algae outbreak in Grand Lake, Okla., in June and said he became "deathly sick" that night with an upper respiratory illness. "There is no question," Inhofe told the Tulsa World, that his illness came from the toxic algae in the lake. Oklahoma health officials had warned people not to touch the water, swim in the popular lake, or eat fish from it. Like Florida's outbreaks, the one in Grand Lake was fueled by the so-called nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, which come from inadequately treated sewage, fertilizer and manure.
After years of seeing nauseating algae outbreaks on popular Florida tourist beaches like Sanibel Island and at fishing meccas like the St. Johns River, we citizens finally got the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to start setting limits on the sewage, fertilizer and manure pollution that's threatening our drinking water and our health.
This type of pollution is preventable. We can combat it at its source — by upgrading old sewer plants, using modern manure management on agricultural operations and being smarter about applying fertilizer.
Cleaning up our waters is a good thing, but you wouldn't know it by reading the distortions and inflated cost estimates that highly paid polluter-lobbyists are peddling to scare people. They will spend whatever it takes to make sure they can keep using our public waters as their private sewers.
The truth is that meeting Florida's new limits for these contaminants is likely to cost a few dollars extra per person per month phased in over many years. In Chesapeake Bay, for example, advanced wastewater treatment cut pollution at a cost of only $2.50 per household per month. Not a bad price for clean water.
The Florida DEP is in the process of setting new statewide standards for phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. Unfortunately, the rules that state regulators have proposed so far are inadequate to protect public health and clean up the waters. It is critical that the state's polluters, now emboldened by the current anything-goes mentality in Tallahassee, don't end up writing the DEP's water-pollution rules. It is critical that our state regulators protect the public, not the polluters.
Tourism, fishing and boating are our economic lifeblood in Florida. When visitors come here and see dead fish and "No Swimming" signs, they won't come back, and that affects our state budget and our jobs.
David Guest is an attorney in the Tallahassee office of Earthjustice, a public-interest law firm.