After the year we’ve had, many of us wish we could go back in time. But no one in Florida wants to go back to the devastating blue-green algae and Red Tide summer of 2018. Unfortunately, with recent reports of massive fish kills, water that looks like guacamole, record manatee die-offs and human health warnings, we are already experiencing another slimy, smelly summer.
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. How do we find ourselves, once again, in this situation with hundreds of tons of dead marine life from Red Tide — this time in Tampa Bay — and residents sick from drinking tainted tap water in West Palm Beach?
The blame lies squarely in Tallahassee, where leadership has failed to enact meaningful changes that will protect the health and beauty of our state.
Blue-green algae and Red Tide are harmful algal blooms that are dangerous to human health, wildlife and pets, and our economy. The severity of these outbreaks is the byproduct of too many pollutants entering Florida’s oceans and waterways from sources like fertilizer, sewage and agriculture. While both blue-green algae and Red Tide are naturally occurring, they rapidly intensify and persist with the influx of pollutants. In addition, rising water temperatures and irregular weather patterns caused by human-induced climate change fuel these water quality problems.
In 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ much-lauded Blue-Green Algae Task Force developed a 10-page report of sensible solutions for addressing our water problems. The recommendations included more robust testing and monitoring of our waters and requiring agricultural operations to meet pollution reduction goals (currently voluntary). The task force experts asked the state to prioritize pollution prevention rather than pouring taxpayer money into expensive and untested cleanup methods. And they sought defensible human health criteria for the cyanotoxin that has killed pets and made people ill.
In 2020, the massive and dubiously named “Clean Waterways Act” had ample opportunity in its 111 pages to fit in the task force recommendations. It didn’t. That’s why reputable science-based organizations like the Waterkeepers and Florida Springs Council opposed it.
During the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers brought forward a bill to force the governor and his agencies to implement the task force’s science-based solutions. That bill died without even a single hearing in the Florida House. Water advocates also supported other bills that would strengthen pollution reduction goals, add fees to bottled water companies that suck our springs dry, set drinking water standards to safeguard human health, and protect the wetlands that clean our drinking water. But without leadership from Gov. DeSantis or the Legislature, those bills also died.
Fast forward to our algae-ridden summer of 2021. At the most recent Blue-Green Algae Task Force meeting in June — their first meeting in eight months — scientists were vocally dismayed that our leaders had not followed the necessary prevention-first recommendations outlined nearly two years ago. The task force’s science-based recommendations to protect our water are indisputable. The only remaining question is whether or not our leaders have the political courage to get the job done. The answer thus far is: no, not even close.
Keeping Florida beautiful is not just an aesthetic. It’s a jobs plan, an economic plan and a statement about our values. At the end of another day plagued by dead fish and manatees, our lawmakers, led by the governor, are not meeting the needs of Floridians. By flat out ignoring the task force recommendations and letting yet another legislative session slip by without implementation, they have repeatedly failed hard-working Floridians who rely on clean water to make their living in Florida’s vibrant tourism industry.
Tallahassee politicians, led by the self-proclaimed “green governor,” want you to think they care. But Florida’s increasingly polluted waters tell the real story. The proof is in the pudding, or in our case, the guacamole. And if we can’t keep our waters clean, it may be time to start calling DeSantis the “blue-green” governor.
Jonathan Scott Webber is the deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters, a statewide environmental advocacy group based in Tallahassee.