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Toxic algae, polluted waters: Has Florida finally had enough? | Commentary

Mar 06, 2019

Scott Maxwell | Orlando Sentinel Columnist

Zayden Drake Taylor, 6, fishes at W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam park in Labelle, Fla., where a deepening algae bloom could be seen along the canal n June 27, 2018. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS) ** OUTS - ELSENT, FPG, TCN - OUTS ** (Pedro Portal / TNS)

Ten years ago — long before you started seeing headlines about toxic algae choking the state — Florida’s top researchers knew we needed to do more to protect this state’s water supply.

Pollution was running into our rivers, streams, lakes and inlets — automotive oil drippings, lawn fertilizer and dog poop — basically all kinds of things you’d not drink or swim in.

So environmental officials decided to update the state’s pollution standards. Nothing radical. Just updated rules that said people developing property had to keep their pollutants and poo to themselves.

“It was pretty basic stuff,” said Eric Livingston, the former head of the state’s watershed restoration bureau, who worked for everyone on the political spectrum, from Lawton Chiles to Jeb Bush.

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Only, the rules were never put in place.

Asked why this week, Livingston gave a simple, five-word answer.

“Governor Rick Scott was elected,” he said.

Livingston recalled the day he was called to a meeting where Scott’s deputy secretary for the environment informed them their efforts to implement statewide stormwater rules were over.

“Scott’s motto was, ‘Environmental regulations kill jobs.’ So the plan died,” he said. “Everyone I had ever worked with before — Republicans and Democrats — knew water was this state’s lifeline. But not Scott.”

So now — with Scott gone and a new governor in place vowing to fight pollution — there’s an effort to bring the standards back.

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State Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, filed House Bill 1343, which basically tells anyone developing property that they have to prevent new development from polluting waters downstream.

“It’s just common sense that the Legislature should pass,” Good said, adding that she’s optimistic.

“The new governor has clearly made the environment a priority,” Good continued. “Blue-green algae and the red tide were serious wake-up calls. It’s abundantly clear that we did not do enough to protect our environment.”

This, my friends, is what environmental protection is all about — stopping pollution before it happens.

See, with the environment, you have two choices:

1. Let pollution happen. And then spend a boatload of tax dollars cleaning it up.

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2. Stop the pollution from happening in the first place.

For too long, Florida has chosen option No. 1.

This isn’t about being a tree-hugger. It’s about being responsible — and not asking taxpayers to continually clean up other people’s messes.

In simpler terms, think about the way you’d handle messes in your own house.

Would you rather spend $200 on carpet cleaning to remedy a spilled glass of red wine? Or would you rather make an effort to not spill the wine in the first place?

It isn’t complicated.

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Unfortunately, it can sound dull. I practically dozed off just writing the words “stormwater management.”

But here’s a number to wake you up: $16 billion.

That’s how much taxpayers are spending to clean up and re-plumb the Everglades, where decisions to reroute natural water flow created problems galore. It would’ve been much cheaper not to foul up that fragile ecosystem in the first place.

This is where the state’s business interests come in. They loveto champion costly cleanup efforts, because businesses get the costly cleanup contracts. They’re more leery about regulations and enforcement to the pollution in the first place. They describe those as “job killers.”

As a result, regulation and enforcement under Scott slowed to sludge-like levels.

While the state opened 1,000 to 1,500 environmental-enforcement cases a year under Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist, according to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, under Scott, the number was closer to 250.

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Hello, algae.

The number of environmental-enforcement cases plummeted from around 1,000 to 1,500 a year under Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist to around 250 a year under Rick Scott, according to PEER (the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility). (PEER)

Good’s bill, which she developed with Livingston, is really a directive. It asks DeSantis’ environmental department to come up with new standards and enforcement for keeping pollutants from running into our water.

Normally, the ground acts like a filter to pollutants. Pavement doesn’t. These rules tell developers their projects must include filtration systems — like retention ponds with modern filter technology — to catch and filter the pollutants before they enter our streams and rivers.

Oops. There I go again, sounding dull.

OK, try this headline instead: “Toxic algae killed dog after contact with St. Lucie River, necropsy reveals.”

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See, polluted runoff leads to algae growth … which leads to green muck … which ends up shutting down local communities and killing a 9-year-old standard poodle named Finn.

This is why several communities in southwest Florida — including Venice, Sarasota and North Port — passed resolutions asking DeSantis to adopt measures specifically like the one Good and Livingston drafted.

They are sick of everyone else’s crap (sometimes literally) fouling their water.

The Legislature should do what they ask. It’s the right thing to do — for the environment and for taxpayers’ wallets.

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Copyright © 2019, Orlando Sentinel

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