Choking On Algae and Anger, Floridians Rise Up

Toxic algae, caused by runoff, spreads widely into communities.

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This fall, as fluorescent green toxic algae continues to break out in front of pricey waterfront homes along South Florida’s Treasure Coast (north of Palm Beach), and around the southwest tourist meccas of Sanibel and Captiva Islands, there’s an explosion of citizen protest and lot of talk about moving the polluted water somewhere else, please.

What we need to talk about is cleaning the water up, not just moving it around. Our government has the power to do this, but instead, all that leaders suggest is more engineering to move the polluted swill from one place to another. It’s wrong-headed, and it needs to stop. They need to hold polluters accountable.

Here’s the deal: The sickening toxic algae outbreaks now ruining some of Florida’s most lovely coastal communities come from sewage, manure and fertilizer runoff. In South Florida, the fertilizer-laden swill comes from huge corporate agricultural operations, namely, Big Sugar, Big Vegetable, and Big Cattle. These are businesses which provide something we all want. But that doesn’t give them a free pass to use our public waters as their private sewer.

Our government now spends our tax dollars operating government canals that move agricultural waste into rivers that lead to Lake Okeechobee, the big hole you see northwest of Miami on maps of the Florida peninsula. Then, the government moves the contaminated lake water into canals that spew the filth to the estuaries on the east and west coasts.

The people along Florida’s sandy coasts have rallied by the thousands. They would prefer this water stay inland, thank you very much. They are dealing with dead fish, dolphin, birds, and manatees, unpotable water supplies and ruined tourism businesses. So, the current cry is to “move the water south” into the Everglades.

Here’s a better idea: Clean it up at the source.

Right this very moment, the government could be stopping this pollution by simply refusing to allow these private companies to dump polluted water into the public canals which the government operates with our tax dollars.

There should be specific, numeric limits—speed limit signs, with easy-to-read numbers—at each of these canals. If a corporation’s pollution level is over the limit, then the government should just refuse to move it into the government’s canal system. That will keep the pollution out of Lake Okeechobee and out of our estuaries.

The polluting agricultural corporations need to take personal responsibility too. You can’t throw your garbage over the fence onto your neighbor’s property. So you shouldn’t be able to dump your polluted water into public canals, rivers, and estuaries.

We’ve operated on this principal for years when it comes to municipal sewage. We passed laws which made it illegal for cities to dump untreated sewage into public waters. As we learn more about the effect this nutrient overloading has on ecosystems, we need to fine-tune these standards, and set proper limits.

That’s what we insisted on in 2009 when we forged our binding legal agreement (consent decree) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA agreed to set numeric limits in Florida to control the sewage, manure, and fertilizer pollution that sparks the algae outbreaks.

The EPA is now trying to wriggle out of its agreement, and we are in federal court, challenging the EPA’s outrageous attempt to alter the consent decree.

As I write this, I just received an email with a picture of the St. Johns River in Jacksonville. It has the tell-tale green slime starting to break out. Too much phosphorous and nitrogen in the water, feeding nasty algae. Here we go again.

David Guest worked at Earthjustice from 1990 to 2016, as the managing attorney of the Florida regional office. His countless legal battles were, in one way or another, all about water. His motivation to protect Florida’s water came from years of running boats in the state’s rivers and lakes, which convinced him that waterways are many people’s spiritual connection to nature.

The Florida regional office wields the power of the law to protect our waterways and biodiversity, promote a just and reliable transition to clean energy, and defend communities disproportionately burdened by pollution.