Environment

Gov. DeSantis picks panel to tackle ‘massive’ blue-green algae problem

Fear grows as Lake Okeechobee faces toxic algae bloom

A deepening algae bloom across Lake Okeechobee in 2018 raised fears along the Treasure Coast and Calooshatchee River that another toxic summer was forming.
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A deepening algae bloom across Lake Okeechobee in 2018 raised fears along the Treasure Coast and Calooshatchee River that another toxic summer was forming.

Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled the members of the state’s first blue-green algae task force Monday.

At a press conference at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge Monday, DeSantis announced that the task force would include Dr. Wendy Graham from the University of Florida, Dr. Evelyn Gaiser from Florida International University, Dr. Michael Parsons from Florida Gulf Coast University, Dr. James Sullivan from Florida Atlantic University and Dr. Valerie Paul, director of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce.

“The toxic algae has been a massive problem. It’s been a problem on the southwest coast of Florida and may very well have been a contributor to why the red tide was so bad,” DeSantis said. “As we’re getting financial resources to make good choices, we want to make sure those choices are informed by the best science and best research available.”

Also chosen to serve on the task force was Dr. Karl Havens from the University of Florida, who was also the director of Florida Sea Grant. Havens, who had studied freshwater lakes and algae for decades in Florida, died suddenly over the weekend.

“He did a lot of great stuff, would have been a great addition to the task force,” DeSantis said.

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Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, who was also in attendance, will lead the task force.

“We look forward to having these academics on board and making sure that we are prioritizing the right projects, prioritizing science in everything we do and improving water quality throughout Florida,” Valenstein said.

Although blue-green algae can occur naturally, increases in discharged nutrient loads exacerbate the blooms. There are health risks associated with the algae, which is actually not algae but cyanobacteria. At high levels, exposure to the blooms can affect the gastrointestinal tract, liver, nervous system and skin.

Adrian Reed, the son of renowned environmentalist and onetime Interior Department official Nathaniel Reed, said DeSantis is the leader Florida needs when it comes to taking action for the environment.

“Can we imagine a state surrounded by water that is not safe to be near? People created this problem and people are the solution,” he said at the press conference. “People who will stand up to overwhelming odds, people who will say ‘no more.’ People like Ron DeSantis.”

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The blue-green algae task force was just one of the governor’s proposals included in his announcement Jan. 10 of sweeping measures he would take to clean up Florida’s water. In January, he ordered all water management districts to provide more data to the state’s environmental agency and focus spending efforts on reducing algae blooms.

Other promises DeSantis made included spending $2.5 billion and launching more aggressive policies to address the algae that is building up in Lake Okeechobee and polluting the state’s coasts. He also promised to increase water monitoring, ban fracking, clean up septic tanks and speed the construction of a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir south of the lake. A fracking ban is likely dead in the Legislature, as is a bill that would increase monitoring of wastewater flow from sewage treatment facilities.

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He said he will also be announcing more federal money for environmental issues soon and that the task force will be charged with helping decide where that money could be allocated.

“We’re going to get money available July 1,” DeSantis said. “I’d like to have some ideas to make a difference.”

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.
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