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EDITORIAL: Fighting, fingerpointing no way to fix toxic algae issue

Palm Beach Post - 7/12/2018

July 12--Another rainy summer season. Another massive toxic algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee. Another round of nutrient-rich water discharges threatening Florida's coasts and fanning outrage.

And, most frustrating, another triage approach to fixing a festering decades-old wound.

On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott issued an emergency order to help mitigate the impact of toxic algae outbreaks on both coasts. Scott was clearly reading the political tea leaves of an election year while touring the Caloosahatchee River Monday morning, then imposing the order for Glades, Hendry, Lee, Martin, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties "to help combat algal blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee water discharges from the Army Corps of Engineers."

As reported by the Post's Kimberly Miller, it was Scott's second such order regarding the cynobacteria -- blue green algae -- in two weeks.

The governor, in a tight race to unseat longtime Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, had already ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to install more water quality monitors to try to stop the spread of a nasty wave of thick green goo. Monday's order went appreciably further, enlisting a variety of other agencies to address the toxic waters -- requiring the Department of Health and Visit Florida, for example, to step up outreach and communications with the public and local businesses.

Water managers were also allowed to waive various restrictions and regulations to store water in additional areas south of the lake. DEP and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) were ordered to spend more staff time on water testing. And DEP will set up a grant program to help local governments pay for clean-up services.

The state's flurry followed a late Sunday decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to temporarily suspend water releases from Lake O into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries so a full assessment of system conditions could be undertaken. That welcome announcement came just as the Corps was expected to resume flows into the estuaries after a nine-day hiatus to provide some relief.

But, as Miller reported, with the lake at 14.44 feet above sea level, the pause in discharges is temporary. Because the Army Corps doesn't like to push the lake level beyond 15.5 feet, Jacksonville District Commander Col. Jason Kirk said it "will likely have to resume releases later in the week to reduce the flood risk that a rising lake presents."

In other words, we're right back where we started. Residents yelling. Businesses cussing. And politicians threatening the Army Corps -- which, if the past week has taught us anything, is merely a political puppet in this play. Witness U.S. Rep. Brian Mast's recent demands on the House floor, and Sen. Marco Rubio's Sunday letter to President Donald Trump, both targeting the Corps.

To hear Scott tell it, the federal government is completely to blame for dragging its feet on funding repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds the lake and approving the the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir. That's rich, coming from a governor whose eight-year track record on the environment has made him the butt of jokes on late-night TV.

The glacial pace of federal appropriations is frustrating, to be sure. (The Army Corps said last Thursday that $514.2 million is heading toward repairs of the dike, now expected to be done in 2022.) But that shouldn't have stopped Scott and the Florida Legislature from doing their own jobs.

This is the third time in five years that high lake levels have led to toxic discharges into the estuaries and very vocal, upset residents and business owners. But rather than leadership needed to bring the disparate coastal, Glades, agricultural and environmental interests together, we continue to get more fingerpointing.

Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature finally did allocate $100 million toward repairs to the dike the past two years, and last year found $60 million for a 10,500-acre above-ground reservoir and a 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area planned for western Palm Beach County. But those projects are all years down the road.

What about more immediate relief from the seemingly annual algae blooms and Lake O discharges? This should have been a priority. But here we are: Coastal residents can't swim or fish. Their businesses can't stay open. Their counterparts in the Glades worry about their lives and livelihoods being washed away.

As former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla said in a recent op-ed:

"This is about finding a solution to the problem. It's about finding a solution that works and finding it in time. It's not a time for dividing up the residents of South Florida and getting them to fight with each other. Florida Bay and the Everglades are at stake. Miami's drinking water supply is at stake. The coastal estuaries will not survive if we don't find a way to move forward together."

Ultimately, only Florida's governor can bring these interests together. Voters should remember that come November.

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(c)2018 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Visit The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) at www.palmbeachpost.com

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