In a campaign season dominated by talk of immigration, trade tariffs, the Supreme Court and all things President Trump, the clash in Florida over an unfolding environmental disaster could prove a pivotal issue in one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate races this fall.
The state has wrestled with serious algal blooms before, including in 2016, when the toxic goop invaded waterways along Florida’s coast, forcing the governor to declare a state of emergency. Then, as now, the state’s largest freshwater body, Lake Okeechobee, was at risk of overflowing because of heavy rains. That led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with monitoring water levels, to open levees surrounding the lake and dump the water that had been polluted by runoff into rivers and estuaries that lead toward the ocean.
On Florida’s southeast coast, the result has been a gooey, smelly blue-green-brown algae that has closed businesses and sickened dozens of people. Along more than 100 miles of the southwest coast, meanwhile, a bout of red tide has killed thousands of sea animals, including dolphins, manatees and endangered sea turtles. Scientists are continuing to research the underlying causes.
The problem has become a focus in the contentious Senate contest as business owners have raised complaints and some families have been temporarily driven from their homes because of the foul smell.
The blame game hit the airwaves last week when Scott put out a television ad — titled “More waiting, more talk, more algae” — that criticized Nelson and the federal government for allowing discharges of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee that have led to ugly, smelly and potentially dangerous algal blooms in places including the state’s St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
“Washington politician Bill Nelson made a pledge 30 years ago to solve this problem,” Scott’s ad says. “But Nelson’s a talker, not a doer.” The ad concludes with Scott saying, “I don’t wait for Washington.”
Nelson hasn’t taken such criticism quietly. He has visited areas affected by the toxic gunk, which thrives when warm, nutrient-rich water combines with runoff from agricultural operations and other development, and he faults Scott for systematically dismantling the state’s capacity to head off environmental calamities during his eight years as governor.
Nelson also unveiled his own ad this week: “Florida’s algae bloom crisis is a man-made crisis, made by this man,” it says, as a picture of Scott flashes across the screen. “The water is murky, but the fact is clear. Rick Scott caused this problem.”
Frank Jackalone, director of the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, said that although Scott is trying to shift the blame to Nelson, the governor is the one largely responsible for the crisis.
“The fact is, Rick Scott has had far more power to deal with these issues than Bill Nelson,” Jackalone said. “Bill Nelson has one vote in the U.S. Senate. Rick Scott is the governor of Florida and has had the power to enforce the Clean Water Act in the state. He could have enforced pollution regulations. Instead, he cut back funding, rolled back regulations, and eliminated a large part of his enforcement staff.”
During Scott’s tenure, budgets for environmental agencies have been sharply reduced. The budget of the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water issues from Orlando to Key West, was cut. Many of the more than 400 workers who lost their jobs in the $700 million cut were scientists and engineers whose jobs were to monitor pollution levels and algal blooms. Scott also abolished the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw development in the state.
Lauren Engel, communications director for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, noted that the blue-green algae is caused by pollution coming from Lake Okeechobee. Like Scott, she pointed to the fact that the Army Corps — a federal agency — is in charge of water released from the lake.
“Pollution buildup in Lake Okeechobee has been going on for decades,” Engel said Thursday, calling criticism that Scott’s environmental policies have allowed more pollution into the lake and made a bad situation worse “an unfair characterization.”
Blair Wickstrom, publisher of the Florida Sportsman, agreed that the problem stretches back at least a decade.
“It’s been going on since before Scott, but since he took office, there’s been a distinct rise in nutrients from Lake Okeechobee and an increase in algae blooms,” Wickstrom said. “This is not an act of God or not because we can’t handle the rain. It’s the lack of regulation at the state level.”
Researchers say they are hampered by a lack of information; Scott’s budget cuts have reduced the number of water-quality monitoring stations around the state as well as the frequency of water sampling. Scientists say the lack of data prevents them from figuring out what has caused these latest toxic algal blooms and providing the sort of early warning that could prompt officials to act sooner.
“It would be interesting to understand why this is happening, but we can’t do that with the data we have,” said Karl Havens, a University of Florida professor and director of Florida Sea Grant.
Last month, Scott declared a state of emergency for seven Florida counties, as he put it, “to help combat algal blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee water discharges from the Army Corps of Engineers.” He ordered the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to ramp up water-quality testing, set up a multimillion-dollar grant program aimed at helping pay for cleanups and directed state agencies to aid local businesses affected by the crisis.
For his part, Nelson has implored the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the potential health effects of the algal blooms. He also has proposed legislation seeking tax breaks for small businesses affected by the situation and to make more federal funding available to research the problem.
“The state relies heavily on tourism and outdoor recreation, the fishing industry, real estate and the availability of clean water, so toxic blooms will directly affect some of our most important economic and fiscal drivers,” said Florida TaxWatch President Dominic M. Calabro.
In Stuart, on the state’s east coast, Wickstrom closed his publication’s offices for two weeks in July because of the algal bloom. Employees complained of headaches, itchy eyes, nausea and other ailments.
“I was taking 10 Tums a day,” Wickstrom said. “I’m usually a zero-Tums guy.”
The bloom has somewhat dissipated this week, he said.
“It’s not so bad when it’s just green,” he said of the algae lurking outside his office on the St. Lucie River. “When the green turns to brown, that’s when the putrid smell gets to you.”
Lori Rozsa reported from Florida. She is a former staff writer for the Miami Herald and former bureau chief for People magazine. She is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.