The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Florida’s waters choke on fertilizer, dead fish and red tides — while Big Ag floats above it all

Dead fish near a boat ramp in Bradenton Beach, Fla., amid a 2018 red tide outbreak. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
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When I was a Miami teenager, spending weekends on the beach was a welcome ritual. The waters off Key Biscayne felt like paradise, so translucent we could see stingrays scurry and fish zigzag as we walked in the shallows.

So when I moved back to Florida a decade ago and roamed the state as a reporter, my heart broke. My beloved Biscayne Bay, featured in countless movies and television shows, may be nearing an irreversible pollution turning point — reflecting a crisis up and down the Florida coast and for its inland waters.

Along the coast, the seagrass that nourishes wildlife can be scarce, and near-shore fish hard to spot. Reefs are dying. Sewage is leaking. Stinky seaweed fields foul beaches. And many of Florida’s freshwater springs — we have more than 700 — glow with neon algae.

Then there are notorious algae blooms and red tides (they are similar but different) along the Gulf Coast, causing massive fish die-offs. Red tides can occur naturally, but scientists say they are likely exacerbated by warming ocean water and pollution, such as the dumping of 200 million gallons of polluted water from an old phosphate mine near Tampa Bay last year.

The red tide and algae repercussions are profound. Tons upon tons of dead fish have washed up on beaches, scaring off tourists and sending people to the hospital, choking from the toxic stench. Algae blooms also kill dolphins, and last year, 1,100 manatees died, nearly double the 2020 count. Blooms destroy the seagrass that manatees feed on, and most simply starved to death.

The decline in water quality is damaging Florida at its core, threatening sea life, the ecosystem and, if left unchecked, the tourist and fishing industries. Yet, except for the long-term restoration of the Everglades, which is critically important, state Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — who has vowed to clean up Florida’s waters — have failed to implement more targeted solutions.

To DeSantis’s credit, he sent the state legislature a budget proposal that would spend $920 million to boost water quality and continue a decades-long plan to fix the Everglades.

“They do throw a little money here and there,” Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, told me. “But without addressing the root problems of the situation, you can only get so far.”

The root problems are no secret: It’s pollution, and the worst offender is fertilizer from farms that spills into waterways, chiefly Lake Okeechobee, environmentalists say. The water then gets pushed into rivers, estuaries, the gulf and the Atlantic by the Army Corps of Engineers to control for flooding.

Other culprits are lawn fertilizer, stormwater runoff, septic tanks and creaky municipal sewage systems and wastewater treatment facilities.

Fertilizer triggers algae blooms, worsens red tide and fuels seaweed invasions, starving waterways of oxygen. But in Florida, that’s just the price of doing business with Big Business.

The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates that as much as 78 percent of the phosphorus from fertilizer that flows into Okeechobee’s watershed comes from Florida’s powerful, regulation-averse agriculture industry. But Big Ag apparently has little fear of punishment.

“That is a big political issue,” David Cullen, a lobbyist for Sierra Club Florida, told me. “Nobody seems to have the spine to stand up to agriculture. The biggest solution to stopping pollution is to stop it at its source.”

A recent investigation by the Treasure Coast Palm newspaper found that all 32 drainage basins around Lake Okeechobee with available data exceeded phosphorus limits. The ABC News affiliate in Tampa Bay, WFTS, reported last month that since 2019 the state had referred thousands of pollution cases to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, but “just two have led to enforcement cases.” Both of them, seeking the maximum $50,000, were still in progress.

The crisis is so grave that when DeSantis took office in 2019, he formed a blue-green algae task force staffed with reputable experts (a departure for him). The task force made several widely lauded recommendations, which led to the state’s Clean Waterways Act in 2020.

Unfortunately, the law, which was hailed as a major Republican victory, has fallen short of the hype. It increased fines and for the first time required in-person inspections and nutrient documentation, albeit every two years. But it did not require the state to set up a statewide water monitoring system or require farmers to monitor and reduce pollution. As for ramping up enforcement, the law accomplished little. It still presumes compliance.

The state needs more employees to inspect and enforce, and it needs the will to back them. But what’s the incentive? Angering the state’s agriculture industry can put any Florida political career at risk. DeSantis and his Republican legislative allies have shown little sign during the current session that they’re inclined to do what’s necessary to reverse this growing environmental disaster.

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