Gov. Rick Scott is once again shifting blame, misidentifying the problem and proposing the wrong solution for the massive algae bloom that is coating beaches and making Florida look like the wrong place to spend a summer vacation. Scott and the Legislature need to get serious before polluted waters take an even heavier toll on public health, tourism and property values. They can start by buying land to help clean up the Everglades, and by spending money and adopting regulations to clean up farming, septic tanks and other practices that contribute to the decline of Florida's environment.
Scott announced last week he would ask the Legislature to set aside money to clean up the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River, and to help property owners who want to convert from septic tanks to sewers. The move came after the governor declared an emergency for four counties in South Florida in response to a bloom so thick it has prompted the closure of several beaches.
Unusually heavy rains this year have forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to redirect billions of gallons of dirty water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, a flood control effort aimed at stabilizing lake levels and protecting property owners to the south. Scott has repeatedly blamed the federal government for failing to shore up a dike around the lake. The real problem is the dirty water in the lake itself, the state's refusal to stop sugar growers and others from further polluting the watershed, and policies Scott and the Legislature enacted that make the crisis worse.
This governor, after all, cut support for conservation and clean water programs, forced huge cuts in the regional water management districts and fought Washington for years on behalf of polluters to weaken the state's clean-water rules. While Scott would help homeowners shift from septic tanks to sewer, the program would be voluntary and local governments would pay half the bill. Scott's approach is more spin than substance; poorer counties won't have the money to participate. And it still doesn't compensate for Scott killing a statewide septic tank inspection program shortly after he first entered office.
The incoming state Senate president, Joe Negron of Stuart, has it right: "Make no mistake about it: this algae bloom is not caused by septic tanks." While Negron said replacing septic tanks will help, he is working on a proposal for the state to buy land to store, filter and move the lake water south. Former Gov. Charlie Crist arranged a deal to buy sugar land for water storage, but Scott killed that plan, too.
It remains to be seen whether Negron and other Republican leaders in Florida are serious about confronting the powerful sugar industry about its farming practices, buying the land near the lake for water storage or tightening regulations that now allow for pollutants to be pumped into the lake.
Any septic tank inspection and replacement program must be mandatory and adequately funded by the state. Lawmakers need to revisit the massive water bill they passed this year and institute new water standards and cleanup deadlines. State leaders should do what they can to persuade Congress to end federal price supports for sugar, which subsidize a dirty industry and force taxpayers to clean up the ecological mess. This is a tall order for politicians addicted to campaign donations from Big Sugar. But if Scott and others are going to start pointing the finger, they should at least be honest enough to face a mirror.