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After decades of lax state regulations allowed copious amounts of agricultural runoff to pollute Florida’s waterways, the governor of the Sunshine State, Rick Scott, was forced to call his second state of emergency in two months to address toxic algae.
Blue-green algae, which has been linked to fertilizer runoff from sugar plantations and other Florida farms, is choking Lake Okeechobee and the state’s southern rivers. Meanwhile, another form of toxic algae, red tide, is overwhelming western beaches and making people sick. Some beaches are littered with fish carcasses, as the red tide has poisoned local marine life.
Red tide blooms have hit Florida for centuries, but pollution may be making them worse. They’ve become larger and longer lasting, and previously only showed up in the winter. The red tide is being blamed for the deaths of 700 endangered turtles, at least one whale shark and countless other sea life. Not only is it unsafe for people and pets to swim in the blue-green algae-infested waters, they can also release toxic gases that drift as far as a mile inland.
Scott has allotted $1.5 million through the state of emergency to address the red tide, but a third of that is slated for promoting tourism and another huge portion will go toward simply removing the dead fish befouling local beaches. Perhaps the state shouldn’t have defunded its own Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force in 2001.
While Florida officials have been quick to refer to the outbreaks as “naturally occurring,” the truth is much murkier. Agricultural runoff is making the blue-green algae blooms worse, scientists say, and they also believe the extreme red tides are influenced by pollution and other man-made factors. Florida has historically shown little will to adequately regulate water quality, and in 2016 the state passed a water quality bill that environmentalists say was woefully short on enforcement and left too much control in the hands of industry.
“The Scott administration spent eight years deregulating and slashing budgets—supposedly benefiting us taxpayers,” Cape Coral, Florida, resident Jason Pim said. “But cleaning this mess up will cost us many times more than if our leaders would have had the political courage to limit the nutrient pollution in the first place.”