Fabiola Santiago

Despite dreadful beach conditions, Gov. DeSantis won’t regulate agriculture polluters | Opinion

The moment I drove over the causeway — my favorite Florida beaches on the islands of Sanibel and Captiva beckoning — the stench in the air foreshadowed bad news.

Before me, the normally glittering blue Gulf waters were an infuriating thick shade of brown.

At the Sanibel Lighthouse beach, the heaps of toxic-smelling red algae were so large and smelled so overwhelmingly bad, that all I could manage was a quick sprint over a walkway for a look — and I had to flee. I almost vomited. My eyes were instantly on fire. I felt I couldn’t breathe.

And I knew.

Once again, Florida’s polluters had gotten away with dirtying up paradise.

In a replay that has become depressingly familiar, the toxic agricultural discharge from Lake Okeechobee had made it through the Caloosahatchee River and estuary to the beaches of Lee County.

I witnessed the debacle in early September as I searched for a clean beach and found none. In Bowman’s Beach, there was less red algae, but the beach still stank. In Captiva, tiny black particles in waters close to the shore left a black coat of soot on the sand.

More than a month later, local news stations reported dead fish this week all over Fort Myers Beach — and Lee County posted low to medium concentrations of red tide.

Where’s the outrage we heard last year? Why aren’t we talking about this anymore?

The problem didn’t go away when “Red tide Rick” — aka Gov. Rick Scott — moved to the U.S. Senate. And it didn’t go away with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ promises that he would make the necessary changes to environmental regulation to keep toxins from contaminating beaches over and over again.

In fact, the plan DeSantis unveiled Wednesday to improve water quality and prevent the toxic effects of algae blooms, although widely praised by some environmental leaders, leaves agricultural polluters to police themselves.

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Agriculture runoff was identified by the Blue-Green Algae Task Force as a key source of nutrients causing the toxic algae blooms. But instead of adopting stricter standards, the governor is allowing the industry to continue to set them for the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides, the Miami Herald reported.

And compliance with rules and standards is voluntary for farmers.

These policies are what got us to where we are today.

Not impressed by the dead fish on Fort Myers Beach or the stench in Sanibel Island, governor?

You can find the proof of how well leaving standards to the industry has worked in the beaches of Southwest Florida, where the agricultural runoff ends up.

Clean beaches should be one issue we can all agree on.

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It shouldn’t be politicized as a matter of liberal environmentalists vs. a billion-dollar farming and ranching industry that dates to indigenous times. Not only is the health of Floridians being compromised by pollution, but vacation rentals, restaurants — and the rest of the working class that makes up the tourism industry — are affected when we can’t swim in our beaches. Needless to say that fishermen need healthy oceans and rivers, too.

Yes, there’s a plethora of components to what ails our beaches — from sewer discharges to water levels at Lake Okeechobee. But the governor’s bill, in addition to runoff, also fails to address stricter monitoring of septic tanks.

One of the solutions environmentalists have called for is tougher controls of phosphorus, which flows into Lake Okeechobee from surrounding farms. How can you call a bill “comprehensive” without tackling the elephant in the room — water contamination?

Praise DeSantis for the will and the effort, yes.

But the governor can do much better than surrendering to the same failed environmental policies that led to the stinky, sorry state of Florida beaches.

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Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”