Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has announced that he has reintroduced the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act in the current Congress.
The bill ensures that federal agencies continue monitoring harmful algal blooms (HABs) like red tide even if there is a government shutdown. These agencies include the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science.
In its look at the year ahead, The Paradise Progressive strongly urged that the measure be introduced this year before any kind of government shutdown takes place.
The bill is particularly important to Southwest Florida, which has been plagued with outbreaks of the naturally occurring red tide, which is fed by pollution.
“This bill utilizes federal resources for tackling the environmental and economic challenges brought on by HABs in Southwest Florida and throughout America,” Donalds announced in a Jan. 12 statement. “Over the last 60 years, these events have increased substantially––impacting local economies, our nation’s ecosystems, and the American people’s health.
It continued: “Safeguarding public health and our coastal ecosystems requires the collective collaboration of federal, state, and local governments. This necessary legislation bolsters the federal government’s role in combating HABs throughout the United States.”
The bill amends the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998.
The operative paragraph states: “Any services by an officer or employee under this chapter relating to web services and server processing for the Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System of the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shall be deemed, for purposes of Section 1342 of Title 31, United States Code, services for emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
The bill is especially important given the increased possibility of government shutdowns by the Republican House of Representatives.
The bill was first introduced in June 2019 by Rep. Francis Rooney who had organized a conclave of federal, state and local officials concerned about HABs, made more urgent by an acute and prolonged toxic bloom in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caloosahatchee River in 2018. (For a fuller account of the issue, see: “Water warning: The politics of red tide, algae and lessons from the Big Bloom.”)
That bill received bipartisan support, with 16 cosponsors, 11 Democrats and 5 Republicans. The Democrats included Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-13-Mich.) and then-Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.). Republicans included Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-1-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.). It advanced past the subcommittee stage to consideration by the full Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, in addition to the Committee on Natural Resources. However, it made no further progress.
Donalds reintroduced it in the 117th Congress following his 2020 election. At that time it garnered 9 cosponsors, 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats. However, it did not advance past the subcommittee stage.
Analysis: Looking ahead
Can Donalds actually shepherd this bill from subcommittee to full committee, to full House approval, to Senate consideration, to final approval by President Joe Biden?
Monitoring, preventing and coping with HABs is a vital issue for the health and wellbeing of Southwest Floridians, especially in the wake of Hurricane Ian. This measure is a small action that will nonetheless contribute to more advanced warnings of harmful blooms, even if there’s a government shutdown.
The handling of this legislation will demonstrate Donalds’ legislative capabilities to Southwest Floridians and the rest of Congress. It needs to be watched closely.
A vision of Florida’s future? The dome homes of Cape Romano off the coast of Southwest Florida. When built in 1979 they were on solid land. (Photo: Andy Morfrew/Wikimedia Commons)
Jan. 3, 2022 by David Silverberg
At the end of every year, most newspapers and media outlets like to do retrospectives on the year past. They’re easy to do, especially with a skeleton crew: just go into the archives, pull out a bunch of the past year’s photographs or stories, slap them together, throw them at the readers or viewers and then staff can relax and party for the New Year. Or better yet, when it comes to a supposedly “daily” newspaper, don’t print any editions at all.
What’s much harder to do is look ahead at the year to come and try to determine, however imperfectly, what the big stories will be.
That takes some thought and effort but it’s much more valuable and helpful in setting a course through the fog of the future.
Although there will be surprises and any projection is necessarily speculative, there are a number of big issues in the nation and Southwest Florida that are likely to dominate 2022.
Democracy vs. autocracy
Donald Trump may no longer be president but the impact of his tenure lives on. Just how much will he and his cultists continue to influence events this year?
Although the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and coup failed, the effort to impose autocratic, anti-democratic rule continues at the state and local levels as Trumpist politicians push to create mechanisms to invalidate election results they don’t like.
Nowhere is this truer than in Florida where Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is playing to the most extreme elements of his base as he tries to ensure his own re-election and mount a presidential bid in 2024. He also has to outdo his other potential presidential hopefuls, most notably Texas’ Gov. Greg Abbott (R).
In Florida, the race is on to produce the most extreme, radical right measures both by DeSantis and members of Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature.
Examples of this include DeSantis’ 2022 $5.7 million budget proposal for an Office of Election Crimes and Security within the Department of State to investigate election crimes and allegations. In another time and in other hands, this might seem like a politically neutral and straightforward law enforcement agency, if a redundant and unnecessary one. However, given the past year’s efforts in Florida to narrow voting options and the continuing influence of Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him, it could have more sinister purposes, like invalidating or discarding legitimate election results.
DeSantis is also proposing creation of a Florida State Guard, which would be wholly subject to his will and authority. The Florida National Guard, by contrast, can be called up for national duty and is answerable to the US Department of Defense in addition to the governor.
These efforts, combined with DeSantis’ past assaults on local autonomy and decisionmaking and his anti-protest legislation, are moving Florida toward a virtual autocracy separate and unequal from the rest of the United States.
The question for 2022 is: will they advance and succeed? Or can both legislative and grassroots opposition and resistance preserve democratic government?
The state of the pandemic
The world will still be in a state of pandemic in 2022, although vaccines to prevent COVID and therapeutics to treat it are coming on line and are likely to keep being introduced. However, given COVID’s ability to mutate, new variants are also likely to keep emerging, so the pandemic is unlikely to be at an official end.
Globally, vaccines will be making their way to the poorer and more remote populations on earth.
In Florida and especially in Southwest Florida, vaccination rates are high. However, there’s no reason to believe that anti-vaccine sentiment and COVID-precaution resistance will slacken. Further, as President Joe Biden attempts to defeat the pandemic by mandating and encouraging vaccines, Republican states are trying to thwart mandates in court. At the grassroots, as rational arguments fail, anti-vaxxers are resisting COVID precautions in increasingly emotional and extreme ways, potentially including violence.
In Southwest Florida the political balance may change in favor of science as anti-vaxxers and COVID-deniers sicken and die off. This will reduce their numbers and their political influence. As their influence wanes that of pro-science realists should rise—but it’s not necessarily clear that realistic, pro-science sentiment will automatically translate into equal and opposite political power.
This year will reveal whether the DeSantis COVID gamble pays off. He has bet that resisting and impeding COVID precautions in favor of unrestrained economic growth will result in political success at the polls.
Will Floridians forget or overlook the cost in lives and health at election time? It’s a result that will only be revealed in November.
Choice and anti-choice
Abortion will be a gigantic issue in 2022. Anti-choicers are hoping that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and abortion will be outlawed.
A Supreme Court ruling on a Mississippi law outlawing abortion is expected in June. There may be a ruling on Texas’ ban on abortions before then. If Roe is overturned, a number of Republican state legislatures are poised to enact their own bans based on the Texas model and Florida is one of these.
If House Bill 167 passes the Florida legislature, it will inaugurate an environment of civil vigilantism as individual citizens sue anyone suspected of aiding or performing abortions. It’s hard to imagine anything more polarizing, more divisive or more destructive both at the state level and grassroots, as neighbor turns on neighbor.
By the same token, the threat to safe abortion access may galvanize political activism by pro-choice supporters regardless of political party. That was the situation in Georgia in 2020 when a fetal heartbeat bill was passed and signed into law, only to be thrown out in court. Politically, the issue helped turn the state blue.
This year, if Roe is struck down, millions of women may turn against an anti-choice Republican Party and mobilize to enact reproductive rights legislation.
What will be the reaction if Florida follows Texas’ lead and enacts an abortion ban?
Whichever way it goes, abortion will be a sleeping but volcanic issue this year. It will erupt when court decisions are announced. It has the potential to completely reshape the political landscape.
Elections and redistricting
All other issues and debates will play out against the backdrop of a midterm election. Nationally, voters will be selecting 36 governors, 34 senators and the entire House of Representatives.
The national story will center on whether Democrats can keep the House of Representatives and their razor-thin majority in the Senate. In the past, the opposition party has usually made gains in the first midterm after a presidential election. That is widely expected to happen again this year.
In Florida, DeSantis is up for re-election as is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), all state senators, all state representatives and county and municipal officials.
DeSantis is a base politician, in every sense of the word “base.” He doesn’t try to appeal to all Floridians but has clearly decided that his victory will be won by pandering to his most extreme and ignorant supporters—including Donald Trump. His actions reveal that he is calculating that this will give him sufficient support to keep him in office and provide a platform for the presidency in 2024.
Trump, however, is a jealous god and has lately been denigrating his protégé, whom he apparently sees as a potential threat for 2024 and getting too big for his britches. DeSantis may face a Trump-incited primary on the right from Roger Stone, the previously convicted and pardoned political trickster and activist, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.
If the Stone primary challenge does indeed materialize, it will make for one of the great political stories of 2022.
The primary action on the Democratic side will be between the three candidates for the Party’s gubernatorial nomination: Rep. Charlie Crist (D-13-Fla.), a former governor; Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide Democratic officeholder; and state Sen. Annette Taddeo (D-40-Miami.). This battle will be resolved on primary election day, Aug. 23.
On the Senate side Rep. Val Demings (D-10-Fla.), is currently the leading contender to take on Rubio, although Allen Ellison, who previously ran in the 17th Congressional District, is also seeking the Party’s nomination.
In Southwest Florida Democrat Cindy Banyai is pursuing a rematch with Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.). Currently, no other Democrat is contesting her candidacy.
The congressional and state elections will be occurring in newly-redrawn districts and the exact boundaries of all districts, congressional, state and local, will be a major factor in determining the political orientation of the state for the next decade. The Republican-dominated legislature, which begins meeting on Jan. 11, must finalize the state’s maps by June 13, when candidates qualify for the new districts.
If the maps are overly gerrymandered they will be subject to court challenges. In 2010 court challenges were so numerous and complex that maps weren’t finalized for six years. This year state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-27-Fort Myers), who heads the Senate redistricting committee, has publicly stated that he wants to avoid a repeat of that experience by drawing fair maps at the outset.
Whether the final maps approved by the legislature are in fact fairly drawn and meet the terms of Florida’s Fair Districts Amendment, will be a major question in 2022.
Battle over schools
School boards were once sleepy and relatively obscure institutions of government and education was a quiet area of governance.
That all changed over the past two years. With schools attempting to keep students, teachers and employees safe with mask and vaccine mandates despite vocal opposition from COVID-denying parents as well as right-wing hysteria over the teaching of critical race theory, school board elections have become pointed ideological battlegrounds. Frustrated Trumpers are determined to impose ideological restrictions on teaching and curriculum and use school boards as grassroots stepping stones to achieving power.
In Virginia the 2021 gubernatorial race turned on the question of parental control of curriculum, resulting in a Republican victory. Across the country Republicans will be trying to duplicate that success by making education a major focus of their campaigns. The resulting battle is already fierce and poised to become fiercer. It has erupted at the grassroots as school board members have been physically threatened and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s mobilization of law enforcement assets to protect school board members was denounced by right wing politicians and pundits as threatening parents.
This is prominently playing out in Florida. DeSantis has proposed the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees [WOKE] Act to prohibit critical race theory teaching and allow parents to sue school board members and teachers. Locally, state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-106-Naples) has proposed putting cameras in all classrooms to monitor teachers. Local grocer, farmer and conservative extremist Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes, has demanded that teachers’ unions be “taken down” by “force.”
The school board elections of 2022 will not be what were once considered normal, non-partisan contests. They will be extreme, passionate, heavily politicized, bare-knuckled ideological battles. The outcome of these elections will determine whether students, teachers and school employees are kept safe from the pandemic, whether teachers are able to teach free of surveillance and liability, and whether the lessons imparted to students encourage open inquiry and critical thinking or narrow, ideologically-driven indoctrination.
Climate change—natural and political
The past year was one that saw some of the most extreme weather on record, clearly driven by a changing climate. Biden’s infrastructure plan had some measures to address these changes and build resilience in the face of what is sure to be climatic changes ahead. However, a major initiative to halt climate change is stalled along with the rest of his Build Back Better plan.
Climate change is the issue that undergirds—and overhangs—every other human endeavor. That was true in 2021, it will be true in 2022 and it will be true for the rest of the life of the human race and the planet.
Florida was extraordinarily lucky last year, avoiding the worst of the storms, wildfires, droughts and heat waves that plagued the rest of the United States.
Locally, Southwest Florida got a taste of climate change-driven weather when an EF-1 tornado touched down in Cape Coral on Dec. 21, damaging homes and businesses.
“What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We’re not doing any left-wing stuff,” DeSantis said to audience cheers.
“Be very careful of people trying to smuggle in their ideology. They say they support our coastline, or they say they support, you know, some, you know, difference, our water, environment. And maybe they do, but they’re also trying to do a lot of other things,” he said.
This does not bode well for the governor or legislature addressing climate change impacts this year. Still, even the most extreme climate change-deniers are having a hard time dismissing it entirely.
Reducing or resisting the effects of climate change will be the big sleeper issue of 2022, providing a backdrop to all other political issues as the year proceeds. If there is a major, catastrophic event like a very destructive hurricane—or multiple hurricanes—DeSantis and his minions may have to acknowledge that the urgency of climate change transcends petty party politics.
Beyond the realm of prediction
It is 311 days from New Year’s Day to Election Day this year. A lot can happen that can’t be anticipated or predicted.
In past years a midterm election might seem to be a routine, relatively sleepy event of low voter turnout and intense interest only to wonks, nerds and politicos.
But the stakes are now very high and the dangers considerable. As long as Trumpism continues to threaten democracy and the future of the United States, nothing is routine any more.
The world, America, Florida and Florida’s southwest region are facing unprecedented perils. But as long as America is still an election-driven democracy, every individual has a say in how those perils are addressed.
That precious vote is a citizen’s right and obligation—and it can no longer be taken for granted.
Starting today Lee County students and teachers will be required to wear masks for the next 30 days, a mandate imposed by that county’s school superintendent, Kenneth Savage.
It comes after a judge’s ruling against the governor’s mask mandate ban and a tumultuous school board meeting at the School District of Lee County headquarters in Fort Myers on Monday, Aug. 30, that resulted in violence and arrests.
It’s just part of a changed landscape—biological, political and environmental—in Southwest Florida and around the nation following an awful August.
Might September be better? What are the prospects politically and environmentally?
It’s time to take a survey, or a “tour d’horizon,” to use a French military term, of the challenges likely to confront us in the month that now looms ahead. Forewarned is forearmed.
COVID and consequences
In August, COVID-19 and especially its Delta variant took the lives of 25,408 Americans, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. Of those, 4,900 were Floridians.
The change of the calendar will not alter the challenge of COVID. What is more, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) executive order banning mask mandates having been overturned in court (although under appeal) the battle over school mask mandates will likely rage on.
A handful of significant local September dates loom as this situation proceeds.
Sept. 8: The Collier County Public School Board will hold its regularly monthly meeting. If a mask mandate has not already been imposed, the subject is likely to be discussed.
Sept. 14: The Lee County School Board will hold its regular monthly meeting and the mask mandate is likely to be debated again.
Sept. 30: Lee County public school officials and Board members will have to decide whether to renew the mandate.
Increasingly it appears that school authorities, simply cannot indulge and accommodate anti-mask and anti-vaxx parents and activists. With the danger to school-age children clear and present, mandates are being imposed by necessity regardless of the opposition by anti-mask parents—and the governor.
Another September date has significance beyond just Southwest Florida schools:
Sept. 20: Vaccination booster shots are expected to become widely available.
Climate and consequences
September is the most active month for hurricanes and tropical storms. Louisiana and the western Gulf coast are still digging out from Hurricane Ida and will be for months.
To date Florida has been spared the worst of the weather but there’s no telling if that will hold. It has been a very active Atlantic hurricane season.
Politically, natural disasters tend to favor incumbents if they handle them well. Floridians—in the Southwest and throughout the state—should watch their state and local officials’ response if the worst happens here. Are they focused, responsive and credible when the storm approaches? Do they sound the alarm responsibly with sufficient time for residents to prepare and evacuate? When the storm passes do they take action to aid the afflicted and work effectively with other governments (state and federal) to assist impacted areas?
In addition to the threat of storms, this year there is a red tide bloom that appears to be drifting southward from Tampa Bay. As of this writing it was reaching northern Lee County beaches and barrier islands.
Will the tide reach further south in September? There’s little that residents can do to stop it but business owners, restauranteurs and tourism-based enterprises need to prepare to cope with a blooming September. Local officials and representatives can prepare now to assist Lee, Collier and Charlotte county businesses if they’re hurt by the bloom.
Congress and consequences
For the US Congress, September is going to be a jam-packed month.
President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan and a $3.5 trillion budget already passed in the House will be moving toward final approval.
As part of its efforts to clean up the environment and combat climate change, the infrastructure bill holds promise of resources for Southwest Florida.
Southwest Florida Reps. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) oppose both measures. Donalds, who sits on the House Budget Committee, was particularly vocal in his opposition.
Two larger elements will complicate all congressional deliberations.
One is the fallout from the Afghanistan withdrawal. There is no doubt that the scenes of chaos and retreat will hurt Biden and impede passage of his domestic agenda. They have already created an opening for Republicans to attack him. Donalds and Steube joined a group of Republicans calling for Biden’s resignation, a publicity stunt that will go nowhere. (Interestingly, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) did not join the resignation movement.)
The other is the work of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack. As it proceeds with its investigation and hearings it will throw a spotlight on the events of Jan. 6, 2021, former President Donald Trump’s role in it and the role of his congressional allies.
None of the Southwest Florida congressmen appear to have played significant parts in the insurrection and attack on the Capitol, so they’re unlikely to be in the spotlight as enablers or accomplices. However, the involvement of other Southwest Floridians could emerge as the investigation continues.
Analysis: A better September?
For Southwest Florida, which is so far both intellectually and physically from Afghanistan and Washington, DC, the single overriding issue going into September is surviving and containing COVID. It is literally a matter of life and death.
As COVID has taken its relentless toll, the intensity and volume of COVID-precaution opponents has grown louder and more emotional. Ironically, as COVID-deniers are less able to rely on reason or data to oppose mask mandates, COVID precautions or vaccinations, they’re dialing up the fury to compensate. Instead of logic, they’ve offered rage; instead of argument, they’ve offered rants; instead of masking, they’re infecting.
If it were only their own lives at risk they could take their chances without harming others but they can’t. In ten days of school, 600 cases of new COVID infections were reported in Collier County, according to the Naples Daily News. A Lee County school system dashboard showed 2,655 cases, according to NBC-2 News.
The soaring rates of infection and the obstinate and increasingly emotional refusal of so many local residents to accept simple precautions like masks or vaccinations make the area a COVID Delta hotspot. In addition to the tragedy of the people who are going to be killed or permanently impaired by the disease, the area’s national reputation as a dangerous location is going to grow.
That reputation will have real, on-the-ground implications for the area’s businesses, tourism and hospitality.
September is usually a time when full-time residents flee the area. The heat is hottest, the storms are most likely and tourist season hasn’t started yet, so streets, restaurants and shops are largely deserted. For businesses, though, it’s also a time to start preparing for season.
If, under DeSantis, COVID continues to ravage Florida and if Southwest Florida’s COVID-deniers continue making as much noise as they are, the attractiveness of the Paradise Coast is likely to precipitously decline as a tourist destination and a place to do business.
On top of that, the hostility toward immigrants and efforts to curtail immigration that were begun during the Trump administration are bearing fruit, manifesting themselves in the labor shortage the area’s businesses are experiencing.
Add to that the likelihood of a major red tide bloom, the result of the Piney Point mining waste stack being pumped into Tampa Bay in April.
As of right now, far from a better September, Southwest Florida seems headed for a perfect storm of COVID, climate and controversy that will combine to hurt the area going into 2022.
But Southwest Florida residents and their leaders have some options: If they ignore the naysayers and anti-vaxxers, get vaccinated and receive booster shots, they might just flatten the COVID curve and at least make the region less of a hotspot.
If officials and local governments acknowledge the reality of climate change—which they are increasingly doing—they can prepare for the storms and algal blooms that are part of life in Southwest Florida. Preparedness, resilience and realism can go a long way toward mitigating the worst impacts of environmental instability.
If Southwest Florida’s representatives in Tallahassee and Washington, DC cease acting like two-dimensional, rigid, ideological cartoons and instead work for the actual good of their people and the region, they may actually win the state and federal support and assistance that the area needs to cope with the challenges ahead.
It’s a tall order and a lot of ifs. But hope springs eternal.
Eminent scholar says SWFL waters to benefit from EPA, US Army rewrite
June 14, 2021 by David Silverberg
In an act directly benefiting Southwest Florida and its waters, President Joe Biden’s administration is rolling back a Trump-era rule allowing unregulated pollution of streams and rivers.
Bill Mitsch, eminent scholar and director of the Everglades Wetland Research Park at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), hailed the announcement, made last Wednesday, June 9.
“It’s a good move,” Mitsch told The Paradise Progressive in an interview. “I’m happy because it’s the right direction.”
In January 2020, Mitsch vehemently denounced a rule under President Donald Trump that relaxed restrictions on water pollution, calling it “a horrible setback for wetland protection in the USA” and saying its imposition was “the darkest day for Federal protection of wetlands since it first started 45 years ago.”
Last week’s rollback announcement was made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Army, which oversees the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps plays an outsized role in Southwest Florida water management.
“I’m delighted both agencies have stepped forward,” said Mitsch. “This, in my view, is a good turn for Southwest Florida and especially the Everglades.”
The EPA and Army will be revising the definition of waters of the United States (WOTUS) to “better protect our nation’s vital water resources that support public health, environmental protection, agricultural activity, and economic growth,” according to the announcement.
Under the Trump administration, WOTUS was redefined under the Navigable Waters Protection Rule to hold that the Clean Water Act did not apply to waters like streams, creeks and rivers that were not navigable or not adjacent to navigable waters.
Put another way, these waters could be subject to unregulated pollution and exploitation. This affected tens of thousands of waters throughout the United States. It was particularly harsh on Southwest Florida with its innumerable wetlands and arid regions like the Southwest United States.
“After reviewing the Navigable Waters Protection Rule as directed by President Biden, the EPA and Department of the Army have determined that this rule is leading to significant environmental degradation,” Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, stated in the press release announcing the rule change. “We are committed to establishing a durable definition of ‘waters of the United States’ based on Supreme Court precedent and drawing from the lessons learned from the current and previous regulations, as well as input from a wide array of stakeholders, so we can better protect our nation’s waters, foster economic growth, and support thriving communities.”
The EPA and Army will now start a process of remanding the Trump rule and redefining WOTUS, while restoring the water protections that existed prior to 2016. It will try to keep waters clean, use the latest scientific and climate change data, take into consideration practical needs and build on the experiences and input of water purity stakeholders.
From feds to Florida and the challenges ahead
Mitsch warned that while the Trump rule rollback was a major step in the right direction, it did not end the challenges to water purity, especially in Florida.
Mitsch has long experience with WOTUS and definitions of “wetlands” and “waters.” In the 1990s he worked with the federal government’s scientific bodies to define “wetlands” properly only to run up against Vice President Dan Quayle, who wanted the definition to favor builders and developers.
“This is déjà vu all over again for me,” said Mitsch. “It’s the same issue that keeps coming back. It’s quite contentious.”
“Waters” and “wetlands” have been officially defined twice before, according to Mitsch.
“I hope they don’t get on a third definition that’s political and not scientific. I hope they have the stamina to go through with it,” he said of current efforts. “There is no such thing as a [legitimate] political definition of a ‘wetland’—otherwise we might as well throw out all our scientific books.”
Mitsch is especially concerned that the state of Florida’s takeover of wetland permitting and environmental protection from the federal government will result in a degradation of Florida’s wetlands and waters. Authority for wetland permitting was transferred from the US EPA to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection in December 2020 in one of the last official acts of the Trump administration.
“I’m very much afraid of Florida taking wetland management away from the feds. What the feds are doing is great but I’ve seen it before,” he said. “There’s no question why [the state] wanted to take over water regulation, it was for development.” While he said he was discouraged that “the train is out of the station in Florida, I hope the momentum of this [new federal rule] spills into Florida somehow.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Part 1: A look at the super and corporate PACs that elected Rep. Byron Donalds
120 days Byron Donalds has been in office
May 3, 2021 by David Silverberg
“The PACs didn’t get me elected,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) said during a March 30 interview at Alfie Oakes’ Seed to Table market.
The remark invites much closer examination because Donalds was perhaps the candidate most dependent on political action committees (PACs) ever to run for federal office in Southwest Florida. And while PACs may not have cast votes themselves, their money made all the difference. This was certainly true in his primary race when he faced eight other Republican candidates, some of them better known and far better funded.
Further, an examination of Donalds’ PAC backing in the 2020 election cycle illuminates the positions he has taken on various issues and his priorities as a member of Congress.
A quick PAC primer
Anyone can form or join a PAC. At their most fundamental level, PACs are simply organizations of people who pool their money to support and contribute to candidates and political causes. However, they are independent of individual candidates’ election committees or political party organizations. They register with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and record their donations and expenditures according to its procedures.
PAC spending is legal and proper when done within the framework of federal campaign finance regulations. It is done under the oversight of the FEC and the filings are publicly available. This is a result of reforms enacted after the 1974 Watergate affair, when large sums of unknown provenance were used for illicit reasons.
PACs are not allowed to demand or request specific actions by a public official in return for specific contributions. Their spending is broader and more generalized.
The PAC contributions to Donalds’ campaign can be broken down into different categories: super PACs; corporate PACs from individual companies; trade and professional association PACs; leadership and candidate PACs from sitting officials or other candidates; party PACs from the Republican Party; and ideological PACs promoting a political position, in this case conservatism in general.
This article will examine super PAC and corporate PAC spending to elect Donalds. A future article will look at leadership, trade and ideological PACs.
The PAC spending reported in this article was based on public information and, to the best of this author’s ability to determine, was legal and compliant with existing law. No criminality or impropriety is alleged or implied.
Ever since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision, “super PACs” have been allowed to spend unlimited funds on issues rather than for the benefit of specific candidates. These super PACs are not allowed to coordinate their activities with candidate campaigns and must make their decisions independently.
That said, super PAC spending can considerably benefit a candidate and that was certainly the case with Donalds.
According to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks political spending based on FEC filings, Donalds benefitted from $1,153,991 in independent spending by conservative, ideologically-driven super PACs.
Of these the two most active were Club for Growth Action, which spent $1,383,647, and Americans for Prosperity Action, which spent $203,613 to indirectly benefit Donalds.
Both super PACs focused on conservative issues that benefited Donalds, particularly in the hotly contested primary contest when he was up against much better funded candidates.
While these were the most generous super PACs, some others worthy of note are the National Rifle Association ($4,451) and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action ($1,184), which advocate against gun restrictions, and the National Right to Life Victory Fund ($3,396), which opposes abortions.
Other super PACs indirectly contributing to Donalds’ election were, in descending order of contribution:
Honesty America Inc: $138,131
Concerned Conservatives Inc: $85,706
Protect Freedom PAC: $80,187
Trusted Conservatives: $46,138
American Liberty Fund: $37,553
New Journey PAC: $32,230
Conservative Outsider PAC: $17,769
Club for Growth: $9,272
Guardian Fund: $6,941
Friends of Mia Love PAC: $6,045
FreedomWorks for America: $2,500
House Freedom Fund: $1,486
According to the FEC, the Donalds campaign received donations from 39 corporate PACs directly to the campaign and so were subject to campaign finance limits.
Corporate PAC contributions are usually made with the intention of advancing business agendas, shaping regulation or legislation and ensuring access to a lawmaker.
These PACs can be grouped into subcategories.
The American Crystal Sugar Company PAC and the United States Sugar Corporation Employee Stock Ownership Plan PAC each contributed $5,000 to Donalds’ 2020 campaign.
Florida sugar companies have in the past worked to ensure continuation of sugar subsidies, ward off foreign competition and oppose labor and environmental regulations that could complicate or add cost to their operations.
Exxon Mobil Corporation (Exxonmobil PAC) and Marathon Petroleum Corporation Employees PAC (MPAC) contributed $1,500 and $2,500 respectively to the Donalds campaign.
With potential reserves of oil in Florida beneath both public and private land as well as possible deposits offshore, Florida has long been of interest to oil companies. Environmental groups and organizations have opposed this exploration and exploitation because of its potential harm to the natural environment of Southwest Florida, especially the Everglades.
There is new legislation in the current Congress to prevent offshore oil exploration. While Donalds’ predecessor, Francis Rooney, was a leader in opposition to offshore oil exploitation, Donalds has followed the lead of Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-16-Fla.) who introduced the Florida Coastal Protection Act (House Resolution 2836) on April 26. (For past coverage of this issue see: “Trump, Biden and Florida’s Gulf shore oil war.”)
The Donalds campaign received $1,000 from The Mosaic Company PAC (MOSAICPAC).
The Mosaic Company is a phosphate and potash mining company headquartered in Tampa. Its mining products are used extensively for agricultural fertilizer throughout Florida and the world.
This April, headlines appeared in Southwest Florida warning that a retention pond or “stack” full of contaminated water from mining operations was threatening to burst and flood the surrounding area at Piney Point, Fla., near Tampa. Engineers began frantically pumping millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. This raised fears that pollution would lead to a severe red tide this summer and drift down to the Paradise Coast.
The stack was created by Mosaic’s mining operations, which had ceased at Piney Point in 2001, leaving the wastewater to sit in the stack.
While this year’s crisis has been declared over and the leaking stopped, it was not the first such leak from a Mosaic mining operation. The company successfully contained a 2019 leak but a 2016 sinkhole from mining operations threatened to pollute the Florida underground aquifer on which the population of the state depends for its drinking and irrigation water.
Reynolds American Inc. PAC (RAI PAC) contributed $1,000 to the Donalds campaign. Reynolds American is an indirect, wholly owned subsidiary of British American Tobacco PLC and produces the Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, Newport, Camel, and American Spirit cigarette brands as well as Grizzly chewing tobacco, Vuse vapor products and Velo nicotine lozenges and pouches. Along with other tobacco products, its mentholated tobacco products may soon be banned by the federal government.
Other notable corporate PACs
Koch Industries, Inc. PAC (KOCHPAC) contributed $5,000 to the Donalds campaign during the 2020 election cycle. These are the companies owned by the well-known Koch brothers, Charles and David (who died in 2019). They funded a wide variety of extreme ideological causes and organizations.
Bloomin’ Brands, Inc. PAC contributed $5,000 to the Donalds campaign. Bloomin’ Brands is the company behind such well-known Southwest Florida restaurant franchises as Bonefish Grill, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and Outback Steakhouse.
Publix Super Markets, Inc. Associates PAC, contributed $5,000, the most it gave to any Southwest Florida candidate. The Publix political role in Florida was covered in depth in The Paradise Progressive article “Publix: Where politics bring no pleasure.”
Other corporate PACs were, in descending order of contribution (the FEC lists some twice):
National Association Of Realtors PAC: $10,000
National Automobile Dealers Association PAC: $10,000
Nextera Energy, Inc. PAC: $8,000
American Bankers Association Pac (BANKPAC): $5,000
Deloitte PAC: $5,000
Nextera Energy, Inc. PAC: $5,000
The Geo Group, Inc. PAC: $5,000
AFLAC PAC: $3,500
LPL Financial LLC PAC: $3,500
AT&T Inc./Warnermedia LLC Federal PAC (AT&T/WARNERMEDIA FEDERAL PAC): $3,000
KPMG Partners/Principals And Employees PAC: $3,000
AFLAC PAC (AFLAC PAC): $2,500
American Bankers Association PAC (BANKPAC): $2,500
Associated Builders and Contractors, Inc. PAC (ABC PAC): $2,500
Wells Fargo and Company Employee PAC (also known as Wells Fargo Employee PAC): $2,500
PriceWaterhouseCoopers PAC I: $2,000
Protective Life Corporation Federal PAC (PROTECTPAC): $2,000
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Action Committee for Rural Electrification: $1,500
Akerman LLP PAC: $1,000
Discover Financial Services PAC: $1,000
Grayrobinson P.A. PAC: $1,000
Jackson Holdings LLC and Jackson National Life Insurance Company Separate Segregated Fund: $1,000
Liberty Mutual Insurance Company – PAC: $1,000
Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc. PAC (MMCPAC): $1,000
Protective Life Corporation Federal PAC (PROTECTPAC): $1,000
Rock Holdings Inc. PAC: $1,000
Teco Energy Inc. Employees’ PAC: $1,000
Analysis: Chicken or egg?
As is clear from the listings above, PACs played a major role in Byron Donalds’ election.
Donalds is an intensely ideological representative of the extreme right, so it’s hard to say to what degree PAC contributions shaped his public positions or to what degree his public positions attracted PAC contributions. It’s a chicken-and-egg question.
What is clear is that super PAC spending made him competitive in the primary but once he was the nominee and widely regarded as likely to win the general election, the corporate PACs jumped in, trying to ride on a candidate bandwagon they regarded as a sure bet. At that point their contributions were less important for fueling his campaign and more important for ensuring that their lobbyists would have a foot in the door of his congressional office—and that he would listen.
Certainly, Donalds’ disinterest in the 19th District’s local water and environmental issues, which was quite striking during his campaign, fit in well with the corporate interests of the sugar, mining and oil PACs, whose companies have caused pollution, destruction and despoliation in the past and may do so again in the future. That said, his cosponsorship of HR 2836 is commendable.
Nonetheless, while Donalds has taken some cosmetic actions toward showing attention to vital, local environmental issues, they have mostly been superficial and shallow, chiefly photo ops and grip-and-grins. As importantly, he has vocally and consistently opposed the relief bills that would speed distribution of vaccines to the people of the 19th District, provide them with financial relief amidst pandemic-related hardships, stimulate the local economy and improve the area’s infrastructure.
To date, the corporate and super PACs have largely gotten what they paid for: a member of Congress who has loudly championed commercial and ideological interests in pursuit of his own ambitions while overlooking local environmental and public health concerns—all while claiming his PAC donors have no effect on his thoughts, statements or actions.
554 days (1 year, 6 months, 5 days) to Election Day.
To come: The trade, leadership and ideological PACs behind Rep. Byron Donalds
The Paradise Progressive will be on hiatus until May 13.
Southwest Florida stands to directly benefit from President Joe Biden’s latest initiatives on climate change and the environment.
Yesterday, Jan. 27, Biden issued the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad a wide-ranging and comprehensive directive organizing his administration’s response to the climate change crisis. It assigned Cabinet secretaries specific tasks to establish a government-wide climate effort and structured the executive branch to “pursue action at home and abroad in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of that crisis and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents.”
The measure immediately and directly affecting Southwest Florida and Florida in general is a pause on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters. Existing leases and permits will be subject to a “rigorous review.”
While not mentioning Florida or the Everglades specifically, the order effectively protects the region from oil exploration in environmentally sensitive federal Everglades areas and immediately off the coast, which has been a longstanding concern for local environmental activists.
In this the Biden measure joins an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in the waning days of his administration that extended an offshore drilling moratorium for 10 years to 2032.
At the same time that the Biden order pauses fossil fuel exploration and exploitation, it aims to increase renewable energy production with “the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030 while ensuring robust protection for our lands, waters, and biodiversity and creating good jobs.”
In the broadest sense the executive order will attempt to mitigate the human impact creating climate change and build resilience to face its effects. The United States will initiate the steps required to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, take aggressive action on a wide variety of fronts and review “harmful rollbacks of standards that protect our air, water, and communities,” according to a White House statement.
Florida is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with urban flooding and beach erosion due to sea level rise throughout the state as well as stronger and more damaging hurricanes.
Along the Southwest Florida coast climate change is a contributor to saltwater intrusion, beach erosion and storm damage as well as hotter and drier seasons contributing to wildfires and drought.
Full text of Section 208 of the Biden Executive Order covering oil development on public lands and offshore waters:
Sec. 208. Oil and Natural Gas Development on Public Lands and in Offshore Waters. To the extent consistent with applicable law, the Secretary of the Interior shall pause new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters pending completion of a comprehensive review and reconsideration of Federal oil and gas permitting and leasing practices in light of the Secretary of the Interior’s broad stewardship responsibilities over the public lands and in offshore waters, including potential climate and other impacts associated with oil and gas activities on public lands or in offshore waters. The Secretary of the Interior shall complete that review in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Commerce, through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Secretary of Energy. In conducting this analysis, and to the extent consistent with applicable law, the Secretary of the Interior shall consider whether to adjust royalties associated with coal, oil, and gas resources extracted from public lands and offshore waters, or take other appropriate action, to account for corresponding climate costs.
Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad
When President-Elect Joe Biden introduced his new climate, energy and environmental team last Saturday, Dec. 19, he presented the nation with a group of veteran officials and activists who know the issues and, to a striking extent, understand water and the challenges surrounding it—and appreciate the water problems Florida faces.
The importance of this is not to be underestimated. Now, when Southwest Florida officials make their case for Everglades restoration funding or try to fight harmful algal blooms or try to reduce pollution in regional waterways, they’ll be talking to veteran experts in high places who know their water.
It’s a stark contrast with the years under President Donald Trump, when the Interior Department was headed by a fossil fuel industry lobbyist, when regulations were only good for being abolished and climate change was derided as a “Chinese hoax.”
Instead the new team’s experience and expertise bodes well for Southwest Florida’s waters.
Six top nominees were presented. Their backgrounds show extensive water-related experience.
Gina McCarthy, National Climate Advisor-designate.
Gina McCarthy headed the Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama and has 30 years of environmental activism under her belt.
Under Biden, McCarthy will head a new White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, a counterpart to John Kerry, former Secretary of State and presidential candidate, who has been named special climate envoy and will likely be reintegrating the United States back into the Paris Climate Agreement.
At the American Water Summit in Miami, Fla., in December 2016, McCarthy called water “one of the top public health and economic challenges now facing our country” and said: “We need to move away from the narrow 20th century view of water: as a place to dump waste; as something to just treat and send downstream in pipes; as only an expense for cities and a planning burden for communities. We need to accelerate the move to a 21st century view – where we see water as a finite and valuable asset, as a major economic driver, as essential to urban revitalization, as a centerpiece for innovative technology, and as a key focus of our efforts to build resilience.”
Ali Zaidi, Deputy National Climate Advisor-Designate
An immigrant from Pakistan, Zaidi grew up outside Erie, Pennsylvania.
In the Obama White House, Zaidi served as Associate Director for Natural Resources, Energy, and Science at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). He and his team helped execute economic and environmental policy on a wide array of policy, budget and management issues affecting $100 billion in funding. At OMB, he was responsible for implementing the presidential Climate Action Plan, which he helped design and draft. He was also a negotiator of the Paris Climate Agreement.
In a December 2016 posting on the White House website that looked back on a year’s progress on a water innovation strategy, Zaidi wrote: “Water supply challenges are felt around the world; in fact, water scarcity tops the World Economic Forum’s list of long-term risks to the health of the global economy.”
The response of the Obama administration—and Zaidi—was to formulate new tools and partner with the private sector to “develop and deploy the technologies and practices that both conserve water and generate new, clean supplies.” Doing this included laying out clear technical targets and mobilizing people, investors and technicians to achieve them. “The strategy focused on new cost-effective climate solutions to spur new American businesses and jobs,” he wrote.
At the time, Zaidi thought that the administration’s initiatives were having a measurable impact “and the momentum is irreversible.” That might have been overly optimistic given the four years of President Donald Trump’s administration.
This time around Zaidi will have a lot of repair work to do before he can launch new initiatives—but Southwest Florida can be confident that he knows water and its importance.
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior-designate
Much of the focus on Rep. Deb Haaland (D-1-NM) has been on the fact that she would be the first Native American to serve as Interior Secretary. Of much more significance to Southwest Florida is the fact that in parched New Mexico, water is a precious commodity and Haaland has concentrated on the policies related to it.
Haaland is a 35th generation New Mexican of the Pueblo of Laguna. The daughter of a US Marine, she lived all over the United States, attending 13 different public schools during her education. She was long an environmental activist before being elected to Congress in 2018.
“Water is life. We must ensure the availability and integrity of this resource for generations to come,” she wrote in 2017 in her campaign for Congress. “Climate change is a national security threat and it should be treated as such. Just take a look what is happening in Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico.”
Haaland is anti-fracking and opposes offshore oil drilling, both key issues for Southwest Floridians. She will represent a complete change from current Interior Department policies, which Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) once characterized as “drill, baby, drill.”
Michael Regan, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator-Designate
Currently Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Regan served in the EPA under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He received his degree in earth and environmental science from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and earned a master degree at George Washington University in Washington, DC.
“We will be driven by our convictions that every person in our great country has the right to clean air, clean water and a healthier life, no matter how much money they have in their pockets, the color of their skin or the community that they live in,” Regan said when he was introduced by Biden.
A North Carolina native, Regan’s top priority in that state was coal ash cleanup from energy operations. He negotiated a settlement with Duke Energy to clean up 80 million tons of coal ash. He also focused on climate resilience, sea level rise, reducing animal waste pollution from farming operations, chemical toxins in water and mudslides, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh, NC. He had to do this despite a 40 percent cut in DEQ personnel.
Last July, when a North Carolina river registered a major bacteria bloom, Regan took to the water himself, canoeing on the river and holding a discussion with local officials, businesspeople and activists, as reported in the local Citizen Times.
“We have a water quality issue in North Carolina. We have an infrastructure issue in NC,” Regan said. “We don’t want to lose our globally competitive position. We want to continue to grow economically. This is a moving train and we don’t plan to slow down. We have to continue moving forward in a smart way.”
The DEQ’s Water Resources Division oversees nearly 60,000 stream miles in North Carolina and maintains seven field offices. While Florida and North Carolina have different climates and water issues, Regan certainly knows the fundamentals of water management and policy.
Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy-Designate
Jennifer Granholm served two terms as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011 and as the state’s attorney general prior to that.
As Energy Secretary, water and environment will not be her primary concerns. But that doesn’t mean she’s unfamiliar with water crises and challenges.
In 2014, when the city of Flint, Michigan changed its drinking water source, a failure to inhibit corrosion in its pipes led to severe lead poisoning among residents. It was a huge scandal. Granholm had long left office and was serving as a law professor at the University of California in Berkeley. But distance didn’t keep her from expressing some choice words for her Republican successor, Gov. Rick Snyder.
“I would want to see pedal to the metal, hair on fire action in Flint. And I think [Snyder], right now, can do that,” Granholm told The Detroit News when the crisis broke. “But if not, then I think somebody should come in who can look at [it] as the emergency that it is and move heaven and earth to get those pipes replaced.” She called on Snyder to move to Flint and live in one of the affected houses.
Brenda Mallory, Council on Environmental Quality Chair-Designate
Established in 1970 by President Richard Nixon, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) plays a strategic and advisory role, helping to devise overall policy.
Biden has nominated Brenda Mallory to chair the CEQ. She served as its general counsel under Obama and is currently Director of Regulatory Policy at the Southern Environmental Law Center,
“Mallory brings deep and versatile expertise working directly with communities and partners across the public and private sectors to solve climate challenges and advance environmental protection and environmental justice,” Biden said in introducing her.
“Though she’s never had a high public profile, Mallory is widely considered to be one of the country’s top experts on environmental regulatory policy,” stated the National Resources Defense Council when she was named.
Analysis: Opportunity and promise
Under President Joe Biden, when Southwest Florida’s officials or representatives bring a water issue to the administration they can now be assured of a knowledgeable and likely sympathetic hearing by top officials. This is a major step forward for the region and one that should not be squandered by congressmen locked into a rigid, hostile ideological approach to the new administration.
There’s another opportunity for Southwest Florida presented by the new administration team and an environmentally sensitive Congress driven by science and aware of climate change.
It is just possible that the new Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) would have a better chance than ever to become a recognized national center of excellence. Working with the new administration, it may just find its federal grant applications are given higher priority and its research may be applied more broadly.
Certainly, once the new administration takes office—and even before—it would behoove FGCU to reach out to the new team, invite them to FGCU to see the facilities, host some international conferences, integrate its work and research with national priorities and lobby vigorously for its own needs.
The expertise, activism and familiarity with water issues of Biden’s environmental team provide a source of hope and opportunity. After a long, dark time for Southwest Florida, its waters and those who care about them may finally feel some sunshine.
On Saturday, Oct. 3, in the wake of President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis and quarantine, Cindy Banyai, Democratic congressional candidate in the 19th Congressional District called on her opponent, Republican state Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee), to quarantine himself, having met with the president.
“Given the current skyrocketing rate of infection among White House staff and event attendees, and considering Mr. Donalds is still in the potential incubation period of 14 days, I think it would be in the best interest of our community if he quarantined until that window has passed,” she said in a statement. “He should also get tested for COVID-19 and release the results, so anyone he may have exposed to the virus in the interim can have the best information possible to take care of themselves and their loved ones. This is especially important because of Mr. Donalds’ stance against mask wearing, which is effective in reducing transmission rates of the virus.”
Donalds met with the president in Washington, DC on Sept. 23, where he was photographed in the Oval Office. He told the Fort Myers News-Press that he had been tested for the virus on Friday, Oct. 2, and the results were negative. He said he had also tested negative prior to his meeting with Trump.
“After you’ve had two negative tests within 10 days, that’s sufficient,” he told reporter Amy Bennett Williams. “I have no symptoms … That puts it to rest. I’m fine.”
“I was disappointed to see Mr. Donalds attend indoor events without social distancing or masks in Southwest Florida over the past week, including events after the announcement of the president testing positive for COVID19,” stated Banyai. “It seems like he is not taking the risk seriously and doesn’t care about the people in our community.”
Donalds has vociferously opposed mask mandates by local governments, arguing that mask wearing should be an individual decision. He appeared at the Cape Coral City Council to oppose masking when that body debated a mandate on July 6.
“You have no authority to mandate what people can put on their body. The fear people are having doesn’t justify it,” Donalds said at the time. “As a council, you have the solemn duty to vote this down and get back to common sense.”
On July 14, when the Collier County Commission first debated a mask mandate, Donalds argued it would put “extensive burdens” on local law enforcement.
“How are you going to have them enforce such a mandate?” he asked commissioners. “Who are they going to decide to enforce it on and who are they not going to enforce it on? There are major issues with such an order.” The commission ultimately voted in a mask mandate.
Donalds repeated his positions during his televised debate with Banyai on Sept. 28 at the studio of WGCU.
Donalds has not worn a mask at public events he has attended.
There is no indication that Donalds has changed his position on mask mandates given the president’s diagnosis and the spread of COVID-19 among high-level officials and presidential intimates.
On Oct. 2, The Paradise Progressive sent the following questions to the Byron Donalds for Congress campaign:
1. In light of the president’s contracting coronavirus, have you changed or altered your position against government mask mandates?
A. If you have made any changes, please state your current policy position.
2. What is your position on wearing masks in general?
No answer has been received to date.
No on stimulus, yes on QAnon
Southwest Florida congressional representatives, Reps. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-25-Fla.) and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) all voted against a second stimulus package in Congress last week.
Called the HEROES Act (House Resolution 925), the bill passed late Thursday, Oct. 1, by a vote of 214 to 207.
The bill provides $2.2 trillion in relief to people, businesses, states and local governments hard hit by the pandemic. It is a follow-on to a previous $3.4 trillion HEROES Act passed in May that propped up a badly damaged economy.
Passage of the bill occurred following a stalemate in talks between House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The administration had proposed a $1.6 trillion package and the two were unable to resolve their differences, so Pelosi proceeded with the House version.
None of the Southwest Florida congressmen issued statements explaining their votes.
The bill is not expected to make any progress in the Senate.
The same day, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 1154, “Condemning QAnon and rejecting the conspiracy theories it promotes.”
While not a law, the bill explicitly condemned the online QAnon conspiracy theory as well as “all other groups and ideologies, from the far left to the far right, that contribute to the spread of unfounded conspiracy theories and that encourage Americans to destroy public and private property and attack law enforcement officers.” It called on federal agencies and the intelligence community to investigate and “uncover any foreign support, assistance, or online amplification QAnon receives.”
This bill passed by an overwhelming vote of 371 to 18.
Of Southwest Florida’s representatives, Diaz-Balart and Steube voted for it. Rooney was absent.
It argued that voters should elect environmental champions this November given the urgency of climate issues facing Southwest Florida. It made the case that political conservatives have to take the lead in devising market-based solutions to environmental threats.
“As constituents of Southwest Florida, when we head to the ballot box this fall, we need to remain vigilant and strong to ensure that our principles are upheld and our environment is protected,” they wrote.
Politically, what was most interesting about the op-ed was what it didn’t say: it didn’t endorse any candidates running and most especially did not mention Byron Daniels, whom Rooney might have been expected to anoint as a fellow Republican seeking to fill his seat. Rooney has not made any endorsements of any candidates to date.
On Wednesday, July 29, the US House of Representatives passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), House Resolution 7575, by a voice vote.
A version of the bill having already been passed by the Senate, the bill now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature into law. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.) was a co-sponsor of the original bill.
In summary, the bill makes reforms to address problems raised by harmful algal blooms of the sort that plagued the area in 2018. At the time there were gaps in understanding and coordination among federal and state agencies; this bill addresses those.
It also tries to minimize the water releases from Lake Okeechobee (Lake O) that have been widely blamed for cyanobacteria blooms.
Lastly, it tries to speed work on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
The bill orders a study of harmful algal blooms, which have plagued Southwest Florida and were particularly severe in 2018. This will be a demonstration program to study their causes, detection, treatment and prevention. Lake Okeechobee will be a particular focus along with the Great Lakes, New Jersey, Louisiana and California.
Projects related to CERP have been dragging on for many years. The bill orders their expedited completion, in particular feasibility studies for the C-43 reservoir. If the Secretary of the Interior determines that a project is justified, he can proceed directly to preconstruction planning, engineering and design. In addition to CERP, the bill expedites projects in Arizona, California and another South Florida project, the C-111 canal, in southern Dade County. It also makes changes to earlier WRDAs to authorize a proposed reservoir south of the Everglades Agricultural Area.
When it comes to regulating water releases from Lake Okeechobee, the federal government will finally take into account levels of cyanobacteria and “evaluate the implications” of stopping the releases and “seek to minimize unnecessary releases to coastal estuaries”—which in the case of Southwest Florida means the Caloosahatchee River. The Department of Interior will also coordinate the efforts of federal and state agencies responsible for “monitoring, forecasting, and notification of cyanobacteria levels in Lake Okeechobee.”
In addition to minimizing potentially algae-blooming water releases, the Secretary of the Interior is now required to issue a monthly public report about the volumes and statistics of Lake O water releases.
Despite its other changes, the bill is careful to ensure that nothing changes from the current situation around the lake—known as the “savings clause.” As the bill puts it: “nothing shall be construed to authorize any new purpose for the management of Lake Okeechobee or authorize the Secretary to affect any existing authorized purpose, including flood protection and management of Lake Okeechobee to provide water supply for all authorized users.”