Tally fails to rally to protect our water

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Aerial photo shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart as a result of pollutants in the water.
Aerial photo shows blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart as a result of pollutants in the water. AP

Just in time for the July 4 weekend, a massive algae bloom sprouted on Florida’s Treasure Coast last week, fouling the waters, estuaries and beaches and posing the threat of further damage to the entire ecosystem around Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

These are the first signs of a potentially larger disaster that environmentalists long predicted. Gov. Rick Scott and state water managers were apparently caught unaware, even though they were repeatedly warned this was bound to occur.

The governor declared an emergency for Martin and St. Lucie counties on Wednesday, which he extended on Thursday to cover Palm Beach and Lee County on the West Coast. It allows state officials to monitor the water for toxins and establishes a “Bloom Reporting Hotline.” But not much else.

The governor’s approach falls short of dealing with the fundamental problem of discharges of polluted water from Lake O. To compound his lame response, he resorted to his usual dodge when problems arise on his watch — blame someone else. Mr. Scott accused the Obama administration of failing to act on this issue, but Mr. Scott himself contributed to the crisis.

Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Scott has repeatedly assailed federal clean-water standards. He blocked a plan championed by environmentalists — and by his predecessor, Charlie Crist — to buy sugar industry land south of Lake O for water storage. And it was this governor, together with the Legislature, who agreed to a sneaky plan that diverts funding approved by voters to buy land that could be used for water storage to other, non-environmental projects.

Environmentalists have been warning for years that the state’s water policies in South Florida were a disaster waiting to happen, and that other solutions were needed to stop the discharges from Lake Okeechobee that were fouling the state’s coastal areas. Now the disaster has arrived.

The algae blooms are the result of nutrient-laden pollutants flowing into the waters that flow east and west from Lake Okeechobee.

In Martin County, where the blooms appeared, the problem is exacerbated by aging sewage systems and septic tanks. Some experts believe that even if the lake’s discharges could be halted, human activities in the watershed would still produce algae blooms. Fixing this part will be a long-term project that requires state involvement and help from the federal government.

There can be no permanent solution, however, without finding a fix for the discharges from Lake O. The U.S. Corps of Engineers has spent $500 million since 2007 to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure around the 143-mile dike. More bolstering is underway, but this will take time. Beginning this weekend, the Corps of Engineers has reduced the discharges into Martin and St. Lucie counties, but this is only a stopgap measure.

That is why environmentalists have long fought to persuade the state to buy land south of the lake for a storage reservoir. Sending it east or west is bound to produce pollution along Florida’s coasts. The worst option of all at this time would be to send it south — the absence of a reservoir would produce a devastating effect in the Everglades.

Gov. Scott and state water managers should stop resisting efforts to build a reservoir south of the lake. The longer it takes them to accept that this is the best way to protect the region’s environment, the longer that environment will be in peril.