Florida lawmakers advance fight against blue-green algae

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The scum of blue-green algae was so thick and invasive in Florida two years ago that it suffocated fish by the thousands. Birds dropped dead. And people stayed out of the water.

Offshore, a toxic swarm of rust-colored flecks known as red tide killed manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and other aquatic animals, their carcasses washing ashore on beaches.

It was a one-two punch that startled environmentalists and underscored the urgency now propelling efforts in Florida’s Capitol to act against algal blooms in lakes and coastal waters.

In Tallahassee, a package of proposals is wending its way through legislative committees that attempts to better control pollutant-laden runoff that nourish the blue-green algae, risking environmental havoc on ponds, lakes and the state’s prized Everglades.

“For the last eight years, we’ve done nothing,” said Sen. Debbie Mayfield. Mayfield is sponsoring a bill that would enact recommendations from a blue-green algae task force impaneled by Gov. Ron DeSantis after he took office last year. An appropriations subcommittee she chairs unanimously advanced her legislation on Wednesday.

Over the next few weeks, lawmakers will be considering a slate of bills — many of them technical and wonky — that would give the state Department of Environmental Protection new laws to add to its arsenal of rules to reduce pollutants flowing into waterways. That includes stricter rules on septic tanks, storm drains and fertilizer runoff from farms and residential lawns.

At the same time, lawmakers are considering putting teeth into fines and penalties to better act as deterrents on those who would violate laws.

DeSantis has said he wants a bill on his desk this legislative session that would increase fines across the board by 50 percent and allow the state’s chief environmental enforcement agency to assess daily fines on environmental violators.

Environmentalists hailed the legislative proposals as welcome first steps.

“The issues we’re facing today are years in the making,” said Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida. “This problem wasn’t caused overnight; it wasn’t caused by one thing. And there’s no single smoking gun, and there’s no one single bullet.”

The same fertilizers that turn lawns green also nourish the algae that has fouled lakes, ponds and other waterways. Rising global temperatures because of climate change are also adding to the intensity of the algal blooms.

“We’re excited that the Legislature is finally acting,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “But we’re getting impatient.”

As it stands, Florida does not have water quality standards on blue-green algae, the microscopic organisms also known as cyanobacteria. She said such standards could be used to sound the alarm and automatically close beaches and lakes to protect public health.

“We’re making progress every day to protect the environment,” said Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“We love the passion for the environment, and we welcome the challenge,” he said. “We’ve got nonprofit, environmental stakeholders, business stakeholders — all of whom are passionate about the resources here in Florida and who are impatient. Our own staff is impatiently passionate about doing more for protecting the environment.”

Over the past year, the Department of Environmental Protection has added 60 new inspectors to help with enforcement, Valenstein said.

Florida’s governor has made the environment a key part of his agenda, pledging $2.5 billion over his four-year term on a package of projects to address rising sea levels, restore the Everglades and combat algal blooms such as blue-green algae and red tides.