Red Tide is here, and it’ll be here again. What have lawmakers done to help?

In 2018 and this summer, Red Tide devastated Tampa Bay. We asked area lawmakers what they’re doing to manage it.
Brothers John Fantini, 59, of Owensboro, KY, Christopher Fantini, 57 of Rockport, IN, and Danny Taylor, 52, of Sarasota, enjoy their vacation despite the fish kill from Red Tide at Indian Rocks Beach, Thursday, July 22, 2021.
Brothers John Fantini, 59, of Owensboro, KY, Christopher Fantini, 57 of Rockport, IN, and Danny Taylor, 52, of Sarasota, enjoy their vacation despite the fish kill from Red Tide at Indian Rocks Beach, Thursday, July 22, 2021. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 17, 2021

After being walloped in 2018 by a persistent Red Tide bloom that devastated Florida’s Gulf Coast, Tampa Bay legislators drafted a plan.

The state Legislature put up $3 million a year into a joint program between Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for six years to study Red Tide: how to prevent it, how to control it and how to mitigate it when, inevitably, it comes again.

Two years later, the problem the plan was created to address — the toxic algae that pushes tourists away, kills sea life that washes ashore and makes breathing difficult — has returned.

Tampa Bay became the epicenter for fish kills when Red Tide blooms erupted once again this summer. The blooms have since drifted to the Gulf Coast and continue to loom offshore. Millions of pounds of dead fish and debris have been cleared from the beaches and the nearby water.

Pinellas County alone has picked up more than 1,800 tons of dead sea life and debris, just short of the 1,862 tons county crews collected during the destructive 2018 bloom.

As local governments scrambled to scoop up dead fish, local legislators grappled with how to handle the recurring crisis.

Since 2018, several legislators have drafted bills for Red Tide mitigation and cleanup, research or water purification projects. This year, some Tampa Bay lawmakers have called for a state emergency order, while others have said an emergency order is unnecessary. Several have pinned blame on climate change or the old Piney Point fertilizer plant property’s contaminated water leak.

Not all are happy about Florida’s work to ensure water quality, including Jonathan Scott Webber, the deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters, who penned an op-ed last month criticizing Florida’s leadership around water quality.

“Water and tourism are the backbone of our economy but, despite lofty campaign promises and hundreds of pages of water-related legislation aimed at cleaning up our water, we’re not much better off than we were a few years ago,” Webber wrote.

Here’s what Tampa Bay legislators have said they’ve put forward in an attempt to help avoid another Red Tide year like 2018, and what they’re doing in light of this summer’s bloom.

Red Tide Mitigation Initiative

The 2019 Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative was sponsored in the Senate by Republican Sens. Joe Gruters from Sarasota and Ed Hooper from Clearwater.

House Reps. Tommy Gregory, R-Sarasota, James Buchanan, R-Osprey, Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, and William Robinson Jr., R-Bradenton, and others co-sponsored the House version, which easily passed and was signed into law.

The goal of the initiative is to develop innovative technology to manage Red Tide. Florida legislators are supposed to get a progress report each year.

Robinson and Rep. Fiona McFarland, R-Sarasota, both visited the Mote and Florida Fish and Wildlife Red Tide research facility a few weeks ago to see a project that examines whether dispersing clay would remove toxins present in the algae bloom. The project was ongoing when researchers hustled to begin a trial amid the current crisis.

It is one of 25 different projects the initiative has underway.

Bryan Beckman, chairperson of the Suncoast group of the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, said the state Legislature’s efforts to monitor and mitigate Red Tide are necessary, but not enough.

“Unfortunately, I think it can lull people to sleep,” he said, saying there needs to be more focus on prevention.

He said he’d like to see more effort to improve sewage treatment, monitor and regulate agricultural fertilizer, prohibit urban fertilizer during rainy seasons and clean Piney Point’s phosphogypsum stacks.

Piney Point

Piney Point, the former site of a fertilizer plant in Manatee County that had a leak earlier this year and poured 215 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay, may not have a direct cause-and-effect relationship with Red Tide, but some legislators and environmentalists are certain it played a role and are pushing the state to take steps to more safely handle — or close — the massive phosphogypsum facility.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the Piney Point spill has contributed in a major way to the Red Tide inside Tampa Bay,” Robinson said in an email.

In February of this year, Robinson and Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, sponsored a bill to allocate $6 million to help close the plant. The legislation died after the spill. Robinson said he then worked with the governor and state Senate to help secure $100 million from the American Rescue Plan to close it for good.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, called on the state’s attorney general to sue Piney Point’s owners for the environmental disaster. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection filed a lawsuit against the owner, HRK Holdings, on Aug. 5 seeking damages and to shut the site down.

Related: Florida is suing Piney Point's owners. Is the state also to blame?

Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, a new member of the Florida House in a district that covers parts of Manatee, said she helped secure funding for cleanup and has plans to introduce a bill meant to regulate stacks of phosphogypsum, a radioactive fertilizer production byproduct, according to her spokesperson.

Water quality projects

Though scientists agree that Red Tide is a natural occurrence, human-created pollution in the water can give the blooms fuel to grow and worsen.

With that in mind, several legislators have proposed and passed projects that attempt to preserve the quality of water.

In 2017, Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, filed a bill that would have reported annual fertilizer use in areas under a Basin Management Plan to understand use and risk. It died in committee. The state now has Basin Management Action Plans that help local and state governments strategize water quality restoration.

In 2020, Gruters sponsored an environmental accountability bill that provides penalties for violating Florida’s environmental laws and offers guidance to fix problems, such as encouraging local governments to evaluate and fix leaking residential and commercial sanitary sewer laterals.

The bill’s House companion, co-sponsored by Reps. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, Gregory, Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Driskell, as well as several legislators from outside of the area, passed and was signed by the governor.

“Florida is not Florida without its abundant natural waterways,” said Gruters. “Water is at the heart of the state’s terrific quality of life, and what makes tourism the backbone of our economy.”

As a new member of Florida’s House, McFarland sponsored funding legislation for watershed restoration in Sarasota in her first legislative session, which passed.

“We have to do whatever we can to keep harmful nutrients out of our water, and let the research show us the best way to mitigate the harmful algal blooms that do come to our coastlines and waterways,” McFarland said in an email.

Robinson passed appropriations bills in 2019, 2020 and 2021 that targeted water quality, including a bill to tend to seagrass beds in Bradenton Beach, which helps filter pollution. Another bill, aimed at Holmes Beach flood prevention, hopes to reduce surface runoff into Sarasota and Tampa Bay.

But facing a harder budget appropriations process in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, a project Robinson said he was hopeful for — water quality improvement work using native oysters and clams to reduce nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus — was vetoed by the governor.

Robinson did secure funding for a project that expanded Mote’s coral reef restoration initiative. Coral helps filter water, Robinson said.

Two of his 2021 bills that made it into the budget focus on reducing surface runoff and replacing a faulty pipe that dumped sewage into Sarasota Bay.

Climate change and health

Scientists are currently studying whether climate change may make Red Tide worse, but it may take years to confirm any of the working theories.

Some predict worsened rainfall because of climate change would lead to more nitrogen runoff, which would feed the blooms. Others want to learn more about how droughts and the salinity of estuaries may be conducive to Red Tide.

For the past three years, Diamond has introduced a bill attempting to establish a climate and resiliency task force or research program, meant to examine the way climate change has and will continue to impact the state, including on issues like water quality.

Each year, the bill died in committee.

This year, DeSantis signed two bills intended to prepare Florida for sea-level rise. The bills require the state to compile data to determine which communities are most at risk of sea-level rise and flooding, and creates a flooding research center at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science in St. Petersburg.

Emergency order

Whether or not Gov. Ron DeSantis should declare a state of emergency over the local Red Tide bloom has emerged as a dividing line among local legislators.

Boyd and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, oppose a new emergency order, saying it’s not necessary because DeSantis had previously allocated money in the state budget to deal with a Red Tide emergency like the one Tampa Bay faces this summer.

An emergency order could scare tourists away, added Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who also opposes such a measure.

But several Democrats believe an emergency order could free up more resources needed to effectively combat the blooms, including Cruz, Diamond and Rayner.

In mid-July, Diamond sent a letter to the interim director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, calling the situation locally a state of emergency and asking for more resources.

An emergency order would “acknowledge that Red Tide is an immediate environmental emergency that threatens the health and safety of residents, in addition to destroying Florida’s unique marine life,” Cruz aide Jack Anderson said.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, did not respond to the Times’ calls and emails requesting comment, but has expressed support for the governor’s management of Red Tide this summer.

Other ways legislators have gotten involved

A number of legislators mentioned they voted for bills that enabled Red Tide cleanup, research or other projects that reduce water pollution.

Others, especially in the 2021 summer, have gotten involved in a more hands-on way.

When Red Tide hit Tampa Bay this year, Brandes said he took a tour of Tampa Bay. Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, got in a helicopter. He surveyed fish kills from the sky with St. Petersburg City Council chairperson Ed Montanari, he said in a statement.

He also met with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission director Eric Sutton as the outbreak began, and has since been in regular contact with Shawn Hamilton, the Department of Environmental Protection’s interim secretary, and the governor’s office, he said.

Latvala said he helped connect local fishermen and shrimp boaters with the cleanup effort, something Cruz also said she did.

“The important thing is cleaning it up as fast as possible and keeping it off the shore, and as soon as it gets on the shore to clean it up,” Latvala said.