They say a picture tells a thousand words.
If it’s a picture of an algae-covered beach, it can also cancel thousands of hotel reservations.
That’s the new dread in Florida, as photos and news videos of gunk-covered shorelines are making headlines all over the world. Why would anyone bring their families to vacation on Playa Guacamole?
And do they even make haz-mat suits in children’s sizes?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The likely cause of the algae outbreak that has slimed beaches on both Florida coastlines is fouled fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began discharging after heavy rains in January. Nitrogen and phosphates from massive agricultural dumping into the lake fuel algal blooms, which worsen in the summer heat.
This latest outbreak is spectacularly ugly, toxic to health and devastating to local marine and tourist-based businesses. Hardest hit is Martin County, on the Treasure Coast, where scummy Lake O water has poured into the saltwater estuary from the St. Lucie River.
Gov. Rick Scott has reacted with unwavering impotence, declaring one state of emergency after another while blaming the federal government for failing to upgrade the dike surrounding the lake so that more dirty water can be retained.
Cleaning up that dirty water is not a priority for this Republican governor or this Republican-led Legislature. In exchange for a deluge of campaign donations, they have worked steadfastly to gut pollution regulations and put the biggest polluters in control of state water policy.
This year their shameless sellout was complete. One of the worst water management bills in Florida history was passed and quickly signed by Scott, basically allowing big agricultural operations to police their own chemical discharges with little or no enforcement by the state.
Meanwhile, most of the millions of dollars earmarked by voters for the purchase of conservation lands continues to be diverted by lawmakers for other expenses. The constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved almost two years ago by Floridians is now toilet paper in the governor’s mansion.
The whole world is now seeing the result of Scott’s execrable stewardship of our priceless natural resources. It’s an ecological nightmare for the state, and a political nightmare for him.
He’ll be running for the Senate in two years and desperately wants not to be tagged as Governor Algae. But because he won’t get tough with the special interests that are funding his campaign, there will be no reinstatement of water-quality enforcement measures for those flushing agricultural and urban wastewater into Lake Okeechobee.
Instead, Scott is refocusing on underground septic tanks, promising matching funds to help communities switch to sewage-treatment systems. This is a sensible and long-overdue plan, but it’s mainly designed to divert attention from Big Ag and other polluters.
Scott seems to be synchronizing his strategy with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which in March announced a “partnership” with Florida Atlantic University to work on “strong, science-based water quality standards.” Specifically the Chamber mentioned its interest in the impact of septic tanks on toxic algae blooms.
Ordinarily it would be startling to see an environmental conscience exhibited by the Chamber, one of the most slavishly pro-industry, anti-regulatory groups in the state. However, the rising outcry about the algae outbreaks — and the economic wreckage being caused — compelled the Chamber to try something to redirect the public’s anger.
Septic tanks in residential neighborhoods are a serious source of nutrient pollution in Florida, but they’re not the main culprit of the current front-page water catastrophe. It’s no mere coincidence that huge algae blooms have erupted in the same area where most of the Lake Okeechobee discharges have been directed.
The smelly blue-green tide that’s smearing the beaches and clotting the waterways is coming straight from the lake. You can see it on NASA satellite photographs.
For decades Lake O was the cheap sewer-of-choice for nearby cattle ranches, citrus groves and sugar cane growers, nutrients accumulating at harmful levels in the muck. As some farm operations have worked to improve the quality of their wastewater, the lake in recent years has received a growing torrent of urban effluent from central Florida, via the Kissimmee River.
Consequently, the water is still grossly unsafe to release — yet more than 150 billion gallons has been pumped just to the Treasure Coast this year.
Scott wasn’t around back when the fateful defiling of Lake O began, but since taking office he’s done nothing but weaken clean-water rules, skeletonize the Department of Environmental Regulation and forbid state officials from using the term “climate change.”
Now, thanks to this epic algae epidemic, he’ll be known as the greenest non-green governor in America.