Manatees Dying in Florida's Algae-Choked Waterways

Florida tourism promoters are always looking to get stories in the newspaper to lure northern tourists — and their vacation cash — down here. But a recent story in the New York Times wasn’t what they had in mind.

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Florida tourism promoters are always looking to get stories in the newspaper to lure northern tourists—and their vacation cash—down here. But a recent story in the New York Times wasn’t what they had in mind.

“Florida Algae Bloom Leads to Record Manatee Deaths,” read the national headline on April 6, in the middle of prime winter tourist season.

Endangered manatees have been dying by the hundreds on both the east and west coasts. The tally is at 340 and rising. No one has pinpointed the precise cause, but the likeliest is toxic algae, the kind that’s fueled by sewage, manure and fertilizer pollution.

At last count, more than 240 manatees turned up dead on the west coast, where red tide outbreaks are also causing fish kills and making tourists wheeze and cough.

On the east coast, people have collected more than 100 dead manatees so far in the Indian River lagoon, just north of West Palm Beach, as well as more than 250 dead pelicans. Tests show the sea cows have digestive tracts full of algae.

The manatees in the Indian River seem to be eating algae because a huge 2011 algae outbreak killed most of the sea grasses, which is their normal source of food. Again, the sewage, manure and fertilizer runoff fuels the algae outbreaks—and some of the algae are toxic. The Indian River lagoon gets nasty agricultural waste from the interior sugar, vegetable and cattle operations around South Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. State water managers send that swill out toward the sea, and it has been fouling the coastal Indian River for years.

So, what’s the state of Florida doing about this environmental crisis? Trying to wiggle out of its duty to protect wildlife and public health, that’s what.

Polluter lobbyists are now pushing a measure in the Florida legislature that would enshrine the state’s weak rules on nutrient pollution. The EPA is—incredibly—going along with Florida’s wacky Tea Party administration on this one, at a time when Gov. Rick Scott is firing experienced Florida Department of Environmental Protection staffers and replacing them with people who come from polluting industries.

We don’t think this approach passes muster under the Clean Water Act. So while manatees die and the unflattering Florida headlines proliferate, we’re in court. We believe that Florida’s weak rules—a bunch of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo which ensures that a waterway will already be polluted before pollution limits kick in—will ultimately not pass legal muster under our 2009 Clean Water Act settlement with the EPA. Our clients in the case are the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the St. John’s Riverkeeper, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

One thing is for sure—the public is behind us. In response to a call for action by Earthjustice and Florida environmental groups, more than 40,000 of you wrote the White House in 2012, and 18,000 of you wrote the EPA so far this year, urging the Obama Administration to impose effective federal standards for Florida waters. Thank you for going the extra mile, and we’ll keep you posted.

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.