Governor Scott tours Caloosahatchee River
Photo from Governor's Office

Gov. Rick Scott on Monday issued an emergency order over the reemergence of toxic algae outbreaks on both coasts, as the regions’ water quality blossoms into a political issue.

After touring the Caloosahatchee River Monday morning, Scott imposed 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.”

The declaration comes as Democrats blame the outbreaks on past budget cuts and regulatory policies imposed by Scott, a Republican who is trying to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

The Everglades Foundation used Scott’s emergency declaration to push for federal support for a planned reservoir, which is intended to move water south of Lake Okeechobee.

Monday’s declaration allows the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District to waive various restrictions and regulations to store water in additional areas south of the lake.

“It is my duty to protect Floridians, no matter what it takes,” Scott said in a press release. “Since we are facing more harmful algal blooms from federal water releases, the state is taking a multifaceted approach to protect families.”

Scott ordered the Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to spend more staff time on water testing. The governor also told the DEP to set up a grant program to help local governments pay for clean-up services.

And Scott enlisted the aid of a variety of other agencies to address the toxic waters.

The governor directed state health officials to inform Floridians and visitors of the dangers of algal blooms. The public-private agency Visit Florida also will work with local tourism officials to find ways to reduce the impact of the outbreak on the industry, and the Department of Economic Opportunity will assist businesses impacted by the algae outbreak. The Department of Transportation must identify road projects that can help with flood control and redirect waters.

Two years ago, Scott made a similar emergency declaration as “guacamole-thick” algae blooms spread across the Treasure Coast, spurring the Legislature in 2017 to fund its share of the construction of a roughly $1.6 billion reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The state expects the federal government to cover half the work.

Scott continues to blame the federal government, specifically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for dragging its feet on Everglades restoration and needed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

Last month, Scott directed state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein to issue an emergency order urging the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District to take emergency actions to help redirect the flow of water to the south.

The district installed temporary pumps in June to speed the southern flow into the Everglades.

On Sunday, the Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District announced it would temporarily suspend water releases from the lake into the Caloosahatchee Estuaries so a full assessment of system conditions could be undertaken.

“As we look at operations in the system, we believe we can pause discharges for a short time to get additional input from staff on available options for moving water,” Jacksonville District Commander Col. Jason Kirk said in a press release.  “We want to ensure we are using all available flexibility before we resume discharges east and west.”

Releases into the St. Lucie Estuary were halted June 30, and rain over the past two weeks has caused the lake level to rise just over two inches.

Runoff from rain that accumulates in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie basins continues to pass through downstream structures and the releases could resume later this week, the Army Corps noted.

The corps had also announced on Friday that funding is in place to speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake. The money would allow the repairs to be completed in 2022 rather than 2025.

But on Monday, Scott said “simply providing money for a project that should have been completed decades ago is not enough.”

“Congress and the federal government need to do more to help families who are facing harmful algal blooms because of the water they are releasing into our communities from Lake Okeechobee,” Scott said. “This includes approving the acceleration of the EAA reservoir that I signed into law last year.”

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg used the state of emergency to announce a new effort to urge the White House to back the planned reservoir, which would also require Senate approval.

“If we miss this opportunity, the Army Corps goes back to a planning process, which will take three years, which will be more summers of toxic algae, more summers of closed beaches, impact to tourism jobs, let alone human health,” Eikenberg told reporters during a conference call Monday afternoon.

Democrats and conservationists have used the algae outbreaks to deride Scott as an election-year environmentalist.

Nelson, who is facing the toughest re-election challenge of his lengthy career in the November match-up with Scott, raised the issue of the algae blooms while in Fort Myers and Stuart on Thursday.

During a conference call Friday, the Florida Democratic Party, conservationists and local politicians accused Scott of “going through the motions” in dealing with the blooms.

“Whether it was cutting budgets, laying off scientific staff, just completely dismantled environmental agencies … he’s spent years fighting with the EPA over water quality standards,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters. “He signed a bill that killed a septic inspection program. We all know when it comes to these algae blooms that we’re witnessing, a huge part of it is agricultural runoffs from the north of the lake, south of the lake, all around. Another part of it is septic tanks that have not been dealt with. There are sewer overflows in many of the areas that are serving our coasts.”

St. Lucie County Commissioner Chris Dzadovsky pointed the finger at the governor for the current problems.

After Scott took office in 2011, Dzadovsky said the governor cut nearly $700 million from budgets for water management districts, including 300 positions from the South Florida Water Management District; put a shipyard manager instead of a scientist in charge of the Department of Environmental Protection; and dismantled the Department of Community Affairs, which had regulated development.

“Those are the agencies, those are the scientists, those are the people who regulate and keep the materials, the contaminants out of our waterways,” Dzadovsky said during the conference call. “That alone, done in the first year of Rick Scott, you’re now seeing the results — an increase in phosphorus and nitrogen and other containments in our waterways.”

Jim Turner is a Capitol reporter for the News Service of Florida, providing coverage on issues ranging from transportation and the environment to Legislative and Cabinet politics, which are some of the areas he worked in 20 years with TCPalm in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast. Jim grew up in Millburn, New Jersey, where he started his journalism career providing weekly reports on the high school soccer team --- of which he was a member--- to the local Millburn Item. Jim received degrees in journalism and history from High Point University in North Carolina.