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Leon Kaye headshot

On Algae Bloom, Obama Tells Florida: You Figure It Out

By Leon Kaye

Florida’s Treasure Coast has become inundated with algae blooms. The problem festered from time to time in recent years but has become even worse this summer. One could blame poor infrastructure, agriculture runoff or climate change. But whatever the problems may be, the green slime is wreaking havoc on the local environment and is harming local businesses.

Nevertheless, Florida must solve the problem on its own, as the federal government has so far refused to offer financial or logistical assistance.

The headlines aren't as dramatic as the “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” headlines during the 1970s, but the message from the Feds is clear: It is your mess, so you fix it. Over 40 years ago, President Gerald Ford refused to consider any federal bailout of New York City (although Ford never said the words “drop dead” himself). The Obama administration's response to the Sunshine State is eerily similar: This mess is yours, you’ve resisted federal regulations that could have helped with this problem, so don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

According environmental watchdog groups including Earthjustice, the algae bloom, as others before it, originated in Lake Okeechobee, about 65 miles from West Palm Beach. Nitrates and other pollutants from surrounding sugarcane fields, dairies and farms have leached into the lake, the shores of which are secured by a dike that is old and is need of further repairs. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers often lower the lake’s levels in advance of the annual hurricane season, and that water in part flows into the St. Lucie River, which flows into the Atlantic.

The result is an environmental disaster along the Atlantic coast that has scared off tourists and hurt the local economy.

The solution, says Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, is to secure the water in Lake Okeechobee no matter how high it may raise, or have it flow “in in a different direction.” But as Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Evergladespoints out, Rubio has a long history of siding with Florida’s “Big Sugar” industry. Environmentalists, including Farago, have long accused the state’s sugar companies of putting the kibosh on any legislation perceived to tighten environmental rules that would hold those companies more accountable for their operations’ impact on local waterways.

Criticism is also mounting against the state’s governor, Rick Scott, who is scheduled to speak at the Republican National Convention tomorrow night in Cleveland.

Scott blames the Obama administration for what he says is its failure to act on this issue. But columnist Fred Grimm of the Miami Herald says the governor has long resisted more stringent water standards in deference to the state’s powerful agriculture lobby. Scott activated an emergency state loan program to assist small businesses owners suffering from the algae bloom. But at this point it is unlikely that the federal government, specifically the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), will be moved to take action.

It is ironic that two of Florida’s most powerful politicians -- who have either denied or dodged the issue of climate change, while local officials clamor that it is having an impact on the state’s fragile ecosystem -- are now suddenly looking to the federal government for a solution.

Two years ago, Florida’s residents voted to support an initiative to earmark hundreds of millions in state funds to purchase land around Lake Okeechobee. The plan was to add wetlands to remediate polluted water before it ended up south in the Everglades or east in the Atlantic. But that money went elsewhere, so the algae blooms keep coming and increasing in size.

It looks like Scott and Rubio, who have long insisted that the federal government cannot solve all of our problems, will have to accept their own advice on this issue.

Image credit: Florida Sea Grant/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye