Fabiola Santiago

Red tide and green water? Florida beaches have a problem, and its name is Rick Scott

It’s hard to explain to small kids why this summer you can’t deliver the promised trip to the soft sandy beaches and clear waters of southwest Florida. Or why you’re not taking them to the mythical lighthouse beach of your childhood, El Farito, and to Crandon Park in Key Biscayne, the early-exile favorites where you, yearning for pristine Varadero, first learned to love Florida beaches, too.

You run out of excuses to avoid going to the dirty beaches of Paradise these hot summer days: It’s cooler inside the museums. Thunder storms on the radar. We need to visit abuela.

But that only works for so long, and eventually, you have to deliver truth, show them photos of algae-infested beaches dotted with dead fish washing ashore and explain the creepy crawly sea lice in the algae bloom, the red tide killing wildlife, and the poop in the water.

“Gross!” they exclaim, followed by, “why?”

You give them a G-rated version of dirty beaches being the consequence of not caring for the environment appropriately, but, among us adults here, this problem has a name: Gov. Rick Scott.

And how we got to the point of unspoiled beaches, inlets, and barrier islands turning into wildlife cemeteries has a theme: Caring for Florida’s fragile environment — and beaches, of all things, Florida’s top tourism asset — shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it is in this divided battleground state.

Ideologues vote party-only candidates. Republicans value business interests (rotten as they may be) over environmental protection (that’s for wimpy liberals) — and in Scott, they found their man. They voted twice for Scott, who became the state’s top executive by slim margins, thanks to the apathy of Democrats who don’t turn out to vote in large enough numbers.

A red tide is destroying wildlife across Florida’s southwest coast
The most severe red tide to hit Florida in more than a decade has left a trail of dead fish, sea turtles, manatees and other marine life along the southwest coast. Andrew West The News-Press

During his eight years in office, Scott has rolled back crucial safeguards like septic-tank inspections that ensure waste isn’t seeping into water systems. He has cut almost $700 million in funding for water management districts largely responsible for the protection of waterways. He appointed water management board members more concerned with the rights of polluters than clean water.

And who doesn’t remember when Scott instructed staff not to use the term “climate change?”

For good measure, Republicans aided by gerrymandering (they drew districts that favored them) also elected legislators who are no different from Scott or President Donald Trump, who has gutted the Environmental Protection Agency.

The state’s fate was sealed with that double-whammy. Instead of strong protections and top minds working on how to safeguard our most precious assets, we have politics of the right setting priorities and delivering excuses like waste has to go somewhere. And, in the words of Miami Herald environmental writer Jenny Staletovich, coast “has become a red tide slaughterhouse this summer.”

My only consolation is that Rick Scott lives on a beachfront mansion in Naples and has a front seat to the dead fish.

Without great beaches, what does Florida have to offer?

Concrete and swamp.

The latter, vital to our water quality, is being paved over every chance elected officials get to push urban boundaries in the name of development and low-wage jobs.

There are consequences to bad choices. Even kids can understand that.

Thanks to Scott and the Florida Legislature’s policies, this will go down as a beach-less summer.

You can feel the desperation of tourism operators in the promotional emails coming into your mailbox from cottages and hotels on the west coast. Rock bottom prices! Free nights!

redtide0055 (2)
This male loggerhead turtle was treated at Sanibel’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) for red tide poisoning in July. CROW

But who needs to bake in the sun with creatures biting at your feet and sea lice creeping up you know where? Who wants to see the carcass of a red-tide-infected whale shark on the sand along with your Sanibel sunset?

Scott, who loves to call press conferences and declare state emergencies in a baseball cap, is very good at taking credit for things like hurricane preparedness, jobs numbers, and growth, growth, growth. He dashes off to Puerto Rico to squeeze out a spot in the Hurricane Maria spotlight to court those Central Florida voters, and doesn’t miss a beat addressing the foreign-policy concerns of constituents in Miami-Dade.

But when it comes to the environment and Florida’s water quality, we’ve been on our own, folks — except, wait a minute, now he’s running for the U.S. Senate in a neck-and-neck race with pro-environment champion Senator Bill Nelson, and he has finally declared the algae bloom a state of emergency.

Yeah, we live in Florida, summer vacation almost over, and we can’t take our kids to the beach.

Our dirty beaches are on sale, USA, but swim at your own risk.

Related stories from Miami Herald