Millions more earmarked to combat blue-green algae in Caloosahatchee River

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has earmarked $30 million to pay for more efforts to reduce blue-green algae in the Caloosahatchee River and increase water quality in its watershed throughout Lee and Glades counties.

“These projects will continue our momentum and further our commitment to preserving the important role Florida’s environment plays in our economy,” DeSantis said. “The quality of our water and environmental surroundings are foundational to our prosperity as a state. It doesn’t just drive tourism. It affects property values. It anchors many local economies, and it’s central to our quality of life. The water is part and parcel of Florida’s DNA.”

The Caloosahatchee River faces persistent environmental challenges including blue-green algae outbreaks that lead to “no swim” advisories and releases of polluted fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the downstream saltwater ecosystem.

These issues not only disrupt the river’s delicate ecosystem but also pose significant threats to public health, local economies, and the overall quality of life in the region.

In 2018, a massive blue-green algae outbreak on the river had profound effects on public health and the local economy, impacting everything from recreation to tourism to fishing.

Created by an influx of nutrient-rich water from Lake Okeechobee coupled with warm temperatures, the stinky green mess brought calls from residents and lawmakers to address both the immediate threats and the underlying causes of the river’s deteriorating health.

Contributing to nutrient pollution are agriculture, septic tanks, aging sewer systems, and stormwater, suggesting that addressing these issues effectively will require a sustained and concerted effort over time.

Office of Governor Ron DeSantis

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WGCU

Several years ago, DeSantis created a Blue-Green Algae Task Force to, in part, work to rid the harmful algae from the river. Despite more than $12 million given to the group last year, the task force’s impacts so far on the reduction of algal blooms and their adverse effects have been minimal.

The water-quality efforts to expedite nutrient reductions in Lake Okeechobee and thus into the Caloosahatchee River and its estuaries have been part of the governor’s mantra since he was first elected to lead Florida in 2019 when he said:

“I will lead efforts to save our waterways. We will fight toxic blue-green algae. We will fight discharges from Lake Okeechobee,” DeSantis said four years ago. “We will fight red tide. We will fight for our fishermen. We will fight for our beaches, we will fight to restore our Everglades.”

Mixed feelings

From 2013 to 2018, when DeSantis served Florida’s 6th congressional district that includes Daytona Beach in the U.S. House of Representatives, his voting record shows he perceived the environment quite differently than he appears to today.

Perhaps only DeSantis himself knows for sure whether his environmental actions are due to the politics of a presidential run, or a more personal discovery that Florida’s ecosystems are key to the health and well-being of the future of the Sunshine State.

“Under Governor DeSantis’ leadership and with the support of the Florida Legislature, the state has taken unprecedented steps to effectively address our most pressing environmental issues,” said Shawn Hamilton, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “Florida’s environment will remain a priority and we will continue to have the resources to bolster our long-term environmental programs and meet the needs of our diverse state.”

DeSantis shook up the environmental establishment, first calling for the resignation of all nine members of the South Florida Water Management District Board.

This unprecedented move in January 2019 was a response to concerns about the board’s decisions, particularly those related to the Everglades restoration and water management policies.

The SFWMD plays a crucial role in managing water resources in South Florida, including overseeing the Everglades restoration projects. Criticism had arisen over the board’s handling of these projects and their perceived favoritism towards agricultural interests, particularly sugar companies.

DeSantis’ demand for resignations was unprecedented in Florida’s history, marking the first time a governor attempted such a comprehensive change in one of the state’s water management agencies.

This sweeping demand for change was met with mixed reactions.

While some praised it as a necessary step towards prioritizing environmental concerns and Everglades restoration, others raised concerns about the implications of such a drastic overhaul of the water management board and the potential for increased political influence in environmental decision-making.

Supporters of the complete overhaul of the water district’s board called it a positive step towards refocusing the state’s efforts on environmental restoration and responsible water management, aligning more closely with environmental concerns.

The changes reflected a more proactive stance on environmental issues than what was observed during his congressional tenure and demonstrated a willingness to address some of Florida’s most pressing environmental challenges, like water quality and ecosystem restoration.

Critics argued that the move was driven by dissatisfaction with the board’s decisions and a desire to reshape the board’s direction in line with DeSantis’ environmental policies.

Blue-green algae

When water levels in Lake Okeechobee get too high, flood gates in Moore Haven are opened allowing water polluted with nutrients to flow by the hundreds of thousands of gallons into the Caloosahatchee and head west toward the Gulf of Mexico.

That, in turn, leads to the near-constant problem of stinky floating mats of blue-green algae fouling its waters, killing fish, and ruining recreational opportunities.

The proposed fixes represent significant investments in improving water quality and wastewater treatment in Florida, particularly in areas affected by nutrient pollution and algal blooms, the governor’s office said.

They demonstrate the concerted efforts of local and state authorities to address environmental and public health concerns in these regions — starting at the top.

“The Caloosahatchee River and estuary, along with other key waterbodies, is vital to the environment and way of life for Southwest Florida,” said Hamilton, the FDEP secretary. “These priority water quality improvement projects are being implemented and progress is being realized.”

Others disagree.

Critics of the Republican governor have said he engages in “greenwashing” – making splashy, big-money announcements about support for universally popular environmental challenges in Florida like the Everglades restoration, clean water, and combating harmful algae blooms — while not doing anything to eliminate the root causes behind global warming by enacting policies to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and passing laws to ban the burning of fossil fuels.

The Sierra Club, which calls itself the oldest and largest environmental organization in the nation, gave DeSantis a “D-“ for his performance during his first term as governor.

“Don’t be fooled by the governor’s distractions and greenwashing,” the Sierra Club wrote on its scorecard. DeSantis “ignored the Blue-Green Algae Task Force’s recommendations even though he requested their input. Did not secure the land needed to clean the water to send to the Everglades and Florida Bay. Needed to commit more resources to seriously address the Everglades restoration. Ignored the property insurance crisis, and refuses to take action to address the climate crisis which fuels it.”

The grants

DeSantis said late last week the health of the Caloosahatchee and its estuary is integral to sustaining the overall way of life and economy of Southwest Florida and improving the quality and quantity of water flowing from Lake O.

The hope is manmade marshes designed to filter water in Lee County, converting septic tanks into part of a town’s sewer system in Glades County, and upgrading to advanced wastewater treatment plants in Lehigh Acres will clean up the river by reducing the nutrients and other pollution that drain into its watershed — the streams that run into the river, the wetlands alongside it, marshy areas farther away from the river, and its floodplain. 

The Frank Mann Preserve Water Quality Improvement Project is a $15.5 million effort in Lehigh Acres to turn a former mine that has filled in with water to form a lake into a marsh, designed to filter and treat stormwater in a six-square-mile area as well as serve as a reservoir.

Florida Governmental Utility Authority’s Wastewater Treatment Nutrient Reduction and Effluent Disposal Project is a $7 million water quality improvement designed to lessen excess nutrients known to contribute to increased algal blooms. It focuses on investing in wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

The Lehigh Acres Advanced Wastewater Treatment Project, at $2.7 million, is part of a broader effort to improve water quality in the region.

The Bob Janes Preserve Nutrient Reduction Project in Lee County, at $2.5 million, is part of the larger initiative to enhance the water quality in the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary.

Palm Creek Water Quality Filter Marsh within the Caloosahatchee Creeks Preserve East in North Fort Myers is a $1.5 million water-quality effort by Lee County.

The Northeast Caloosahatchee River Septic-to-Sewer Project in Glades County, at $2.7 million, will convert septic systems to sewer systems in the region to improve infrastructure and environmental health.
 

Congressman v. governor

As a member of Congress, DeSantis’ voting record largely aligned with conservatives, mainly opposing climate change measures and supporting deregulation of the fossil fuel industry.

According to the League of Conservation Voters Scorecard, his voting record on environmental issues was 2% positive, meaning he often voted against measures that the league considers beneficial for the environment, such as backing policies to combat climate change, conserving natural habitats and the wildlife that live there, and supporting the tenets of the Clean Water and Air acts.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

However, as governor, DeSantis has earmarked significant funding for environmental protections including nearly $3 billion for Everglades restoration during his first term. Then in his current second term, he upped that support for the Everglades and other environmental initiatives to $3.5 billion.

DeSantis’ proposed budget for 2023-2024 is $114.8 billion, with $1.1 billion for environmental initiatives. The amount includes more than $614 million for Everglades restoration projects and $370 million for targeted water quality improvements.

DeSantis has $25 million packed away in the upcoming budget to pay for more research into the algae crisis.

Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida, applauded the spending.

“Audubon celebrates this budget’s investments in Everglades restoration, land conservation through the Florida Forever program, and the special focus on investments in our iconic estuaries such as the Indian River Lagoon, Caloosahatchee, Biscayne Bay, and more,” she said. “These elements will help protect water quality and our state’s natural infrastructure, making communities more resilient in the face of climate change.”
 

Terrible or great?

Those happy with the governor’s environmental policies say he is keenly aware that fostering a healthy ecosystem in the Caloosahatchee River is not only the right thing to do, but it results in many benefits for the state’s economy such as increased tourism when beaches aren’t marred by red tide.

The Everglades Foundation and others have praised what they call the governor’s consistent attention to various environmental needs and for providing the money it takes.

“It is because of Governor DeSantis’ resounding commitment that we are seeing such meaningful progress in Everglades restoration,” said Eric Eikenberg, head of the Everglades Foundation. “We look forward to seeing these dollars make a tangible impact on the Everglades.”

Other environmental groups are quick to criticize the governor’s environmental agenda, including Florida Conservation Voters, who have criticized DeSantis for what they see as abandoning earlier environmental promises to instead focus on culture war politics.

Bruce Ritchie of Politico, in a 2023 essay on DeSantis’ environmental legacy, wrote that after a strong start on environmental issues at the beginning of his first term in 2019, the governor’s record has varied.

“Four years later and after officially launching a presidential bid, environmentalists and others offer praise and disappointment — sometimes simultaneously,” Ritchie wrote. “He’s proposed billions of dollars to restore waterways and state treasures like the Everglades but has also pushed legislation banning local environmental regulations. He famously rejects climate change while championing spending to address the effects of sea level rise. And he’s signed a long list of bills championed by developers and industry.”

Ritchie quoted Jane West, policy and planning director at 1000 Friends of Florida, who called DeSantis’ record on the environment “confusing — and hypocritical.”

“You can’t just concisely say it is terrible or it’s great,” West said to Ritchie. “It’s more nuanced than that. And I think that was probably done on purpose.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part byVoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health. 

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