Water warning: The politics of red tide, algae and lessons from the Big Bloom

Demonstrators demanding action to combat red tide protest a campaign appearance by then-Gov. Rick Scott in Venice, Fla., in 2018. (Image: Indivisble SWFL)

May 26, 2021 by David Silverberg

–Updated May 27 with new link to Stafford Act

This summer Southwest Florida seems headed for a Big Bloom on the order of 2018’s disastrous summer.

Blue-green algae is flowing down the Caloosahatchee River as a result of Lake Okeechobee water releases.

Red tide is blooming in the Gulf of Mexico. This year there’s the added threat of blooms as a result of the dumping of millions of gallons of polluted water to relieve pressure on the Piney Point wastewater pond, or “stack” near Tampa. This has likely fed blooms in that area that could drift southward.

People living along the Caloosahatchee are already breathing the toxins and smelling the stench. Red tide alerts have been issued along the beaches.

All disasters—and harmful algal blooms (HABs) are disasters just as much as hurricanes—have political implications. What will be the political impact if there’s a big bloom this year? Were any lessons learned from 2018 and are they being applied? How will Southwest Florida’s politicians react this time around? And can anything be done differently—and better?

Recapping 2018

In 2018 Southwest Florida experienced an extremely heavy concentration of river algae and Gulf red tide at the same time. It went on for roughly a year, first appearing in October 2017 and then intensifying and peaking in the summer of 2018, finally breaking up in the late fall.

Red tide is naturally occurring in the Gulf and had appeared and broken up before without any major impact on the region. River algal blooms had been minor inconveniences. This was not expected to be any different.

But these blooms lingered and intensified. In contrast to 2017, which had seen Hurricane Irma and lesser storms in the region, there were no major storms in 2018, which may have allowed the blooms to fester. The extremely heavy rainfall of 2017 may have been a contributing factor. The precise relationship between tropical storms and algal blooms remains unclear.

The Big Bloom didn’t just ruin a few peoples’ beach time or boat trips; it was significantly damaging to the area’s economy. It became a national story that dampened tourism and reduced hotel occupancy. Based on surveys filled out by area businesses, 152 or 92 percent of surveyed business owners stated they had lost business due to the red tide in the Gulf. Of them, 126 or 76 percent stated they had lost $500,000 or more. Others estimated losses between $20,000 and $2,000.

The bloom was also a serious health hazard to those who lived along waterways and had no means of escape.

Authorities at all levels were slow to recognize the blooms as a disaster or their magnitude and respond in any way. In addition, it was an election year, so elected officials were distracted by their need to campaign.

At the federal level, Donald Trump was president so environmental issues were ignored or had a low priority.

Then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) was running for the Senate. He had been a strenuous denier of climate change and avoided dealing with environmental questions. Scott banished the term “climate change” from the official vocabulary in Florida state government.

Then-Rep. Francis Rooney, representing the area from Cape Coral to Marco Island in Congress, was largely engaged in supporting Scott while running his own re-election campaign, so he was distracted as well.

Furthermore, the area’s elected officials, media and a good portion of the politically active population simply denied or ignored the impact of overall climate change on the region and its possible role in the disaster.

While the bloom was at its worst in the summer and early fall of 2018, officials were largely helpless. No official edict or action could stop the bloom. While the voters would not allow the incumbent candidates to completely ignore it, candidates did their best to minimize it or distract voters away from it. Late in the crisis Scott declared an emergency and made a paltry $13 million available to the affected businesses.

After the election was over, Rooney took the lead in attempting some kind of response. In May 2019 he pulled together a conference of all the affected region’s elected officials and four relevant federal agencies to attempt a discussion of the HABs and future response. It was briefly attended by the new governor, Ron DeSantis (R), who in contrast to Scott, made environmental issues a priority.

Unfortunately, the conference, held at the Emergent Technologies Institute of Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), was closed to the public, so the full extent of its discussions, conclusions and decisions will never be known publicly.

Rooney did report out some of the discussion in an op-ed that ran in local newspapers under different titles.

After establishing that federal response to HABs was inadequate and uncoordinated with local authorities, participants concluded that the relevant federal agencies needed to be more aware of HABs as potential disasters and keep local jurisdictions informed of their formation and potential impacts. In addition to agencies that have direct, line responsibility in the event of a HAB like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had roles to play.

For his part Rooney introduced two pieces of legislation: one to classify HABs as major national disasters so that local businesses and residents would get disaster relief, and another to ensure that HAB monitoring and response were not interrupted by government shutdowns. Neither bill passed into law during the 116th Congress.

He also introduced changes to help with HABs to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the massive, comprehensive congressional bill that covers all water infrastructure, which was signed into law at the very end of 2020.

What’s different in 2021

There has been considerable change on many fronts since the Big Bloom of 2018 that may help with the response if there’s a big bloom this year.

Monitoring, reporting and information

A major, obvious change from 2018 is the amount of information available to the public on the state of algal blooms in general, which also translates into more information about local blooms. This is a vast improvement over 2018 when such information was either unavailable or fragmentary.

Government agencies and jurisdictions established websites on HABs after 2018.

(A full list of public links regarding Southwest Florida HABs is at the end of this article.)

This year there are also mechanisms for local jurisdictions to share information with federal agencies, enabling much better monitoring of HAB outbreaks and providing a much more comprehensive view of both national and local situations than was available in 2018.

Gubernatorial and state involvement

In 2018 then-Gov. Rick Scott’s hostility to environmental issues and solutions was infamous and came back to bite him during the Big Bloom.

Gov. Ron DeSantis got off to an early and very popular start when he took office in 2019. He dropped the hostility to science, creating the position of Chief Science Officer. He boosted funding for Everglades restoration and dismissed the South Florida Water Management District Board for a sweetheart lease with the sugar industry. He also dropped Scott’s prohibition on using the term “climate change.”

The DeSantis administration also established Protecting Florida Together, a Web portal for monitoring and communicating environmental and water quality information to the public. While heavily promoting the governor, it provides useful and presumably accurate data on the state of algal blooms and red tide.

This alteration in gubernatorial attitude is a sea change from 2018. Simply having a state administration that is aware of environmental issues can provide some public confidence that solutions are being sought, which was not previously the case.

Federal expertise

Another sea change was the transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden, who ran a campaign that took environmentally-friendly positions on major issues. Since his inauguration Biden has made major efforts to boost environmentally-friendly policies and combat climate change.

Biden’s climate team is particularly expert in water issues. Michael Regan, the current EPA administrator, is especially familiar with HABs, having confronted a major bloom in North Carolina, where he served as secretary of the Department of Environmental Quality. In July 2019 he canoed the state’s rivers to see the bloom for himself.

If this year’s algal bloom rises to the level of EPA administrator for action, Southwest Florida officials will be working with an EPA head who intimately knows and understands the problem.

Upgrading and modernizing US drinking, wastewater and stormwater systems is a major aspect of Biden’s infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan. While it may not directly impact this year’s blooms, over the longer term it will address the underlying conditions that lead to the blooms, hopefully mitigating or eliminating them. However, it is still in negotiation between the White House and congressional Republicans.

Locally, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has already attacked the plan as simply being the Green New Deal in disguise and for proposing new taxes on corporations and the extremely wealthy to pay for it.

Legislation

It is on the legislative front that there has been the least amount of progress in coping with HABs in general or this year’s potential bloom in particular.

In 2019 then-Rep. Francis Rooney proposed two pieces of legislation to deal with HABs: The most important one was the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act, which consisted of a three-word amendment to The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which would add HABs to the official roster of major disasters eligible for federal aid. This would make Southwest Florida businesses and residents eligible for a variety of federal support if businesses or livelihoods are damaged by a bloom.

Rooney’s bill went nowhere during his term in office and there is no renewal in the offing.

The second proposal was the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act, which would ensure that HAB monitoring by federal agencies would continue despite any government shutdowns, a situation less urgent than under Donald Trump. That bill too went nowhere during Rooney’s tenure. It was reintroduced by Donalds on March 17 as House Resolution 1954 and as of today it remains in committee awaiting consideration.

Legislation can’t stop a bloom while it’s happening—but it can mitigate the harm from one and protect people from indirect effects in the future. However, there has been no progress on this front to date and Southwest Florida will go into a 2021 bloom as unprotected legislatively as in 2018.

Analysis: Progress and challenges

Make no mistake: there has been progress on coping with algal blooms since 2018.

There’s been much more research into the nature and causes of blooms and efforts to mitigate their causes, like Lake Okeechobee pollution and phosphates flowing into local waterways.

A big step forward was the founding of the Water School at FGCU on March 22, 2019. This is a major addition to the university, dedicated to researching and examining all aspects of water. While still being developed it’s in a position to make a major contribution to fighting the blooms this year, providing timely and detailed information to officials at all levels and the public at large

In addition to the governmental and legislative measures, localities have been experimenting with technological fixes to contain or eliminate river algae. Public health authorities are far more aware of the health impacts of algal toxins and their dangers.

Even if this year’s bloom blossoms into a crisis on the order of 2018’s, politicians now have precedents to inform their behavior, unlike the example of Rick Scott, who as governor and a Senate candidate fled from red tide protesters in Venice during a campaign swing.

But the lessons of the past don’t just apply to political campaigning and the quest for higher office; they also have to assist in managing the disaster itself.

As a general rule, disasters favor incumbents. A sitting governor, mayor or public official can be seen as vigorous and commanding if he or she appears to take charge. But an official also has to deliver real results. People may not remember a good disaster response but they never forget a bad one.

For businesses, that means being assisted with disaster recovery funding, which is why amending the Stafford Act is so important.

And perhaps the greatest lessons to be taken away from the 2018 Big Bloom are the intangible ones: that big blooms are dangerous; they’re damaging; they really hurt people and businesses; they can be economically devastating; they need to be taken as seriously as any hurricane; they need to be monitored and, to as great an extent as possible, countered early; and all jurisdictions have to coordinate and cooperate in their responses.

Also, algal blooms, like the pandemic, don’t discriminate between political parties or persuasions. Algal toxins and their consequences affect everyone equally.

So Southwest Florida is somewhat better prepared and knowledgeable than it was in 2018 if there’s a big bloom this year.

But as always with disaster management, there’s still a long way to go.


Further resources:

Federal:

NOAA (Current conditions):

CDC (General information): Harmful Algal Bloom-Associated Illness

EPA (General information)

State:

Local:

Lee County

  • While Lee County has a red tide and algae bloom status website, it is badly out of date—in fact, it seems to have frozen in 2018 and refers to Rick Scott as governor. Nonetheless, for the record, it is at: https://www.leegov.com/waterqualityinfo.

Cape Coral

Collier County

City of Naples

  • While the Naples City website links to the Collier County information, it also provides a phone number for recorded updates on conditions in Collier County: (239) 252-2591.

Non-Profit, non-governmental advocacy organizations

For a deeper dive into the political aspects of disaster response see the book Masters of Disaster: The Political and Leadership Lessons of America’s Greatest Disasters on Amazon Kindle.

Liberty lives in light

©2021 by David Silverberg

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