Vote the Outdoors: How Toxic Algae is Shaping Politics in Florida
Born and raised on Sanibel Island, Sharon Michie, owner of the boutique vacation rental company, Cottages to Castles, has spent 50 years along the coastal waters of southwest Florida. In those years, she has been lucky enough–just once–to experience the magic of a loggerhead turtle crawling up onto the beach at night to lay eggs. This year, Sharon saw the turtles on the beach, uninterrupted, for nearly three straight weeks. This time was far from magic.
Florida is experiencing one of its worst red tide events in history, reaching its one-year mark of activity this past October. A "red tide" occurs when colonies of algae grow exponentially, creating large masses in the water and producing powerful toxins. The Karenia brevis species of algae along Florida's coast can give the ocean's surface a red hue. The event can create health hazards for people with respiratory issues. The contaminants in seafood pulled from such waters can also make humans very sick. While the effects of Karenia brevis are terrible for locals, the algae bloom is catastrophic for sea life. Between the ingestion of the toxins and the oxygen depletion of the water as the algae decays, a red tide event can kill an astounding variety of sea animals. This year has seen mass die-offs of fish, seabirds, manatees, and the loggerhead turtles Sharon witnessed along her shores.
"Having grown up here, red tide has come and gone many times. But it has never been this catastrophic–ever." Michie pauses, "Ever."
Red tides are naturally occurring events. However, it is widely accepted by the scientific community that they are made worse by nutrient-rich runoff, such as that originating in the phosphorus- and nitrogen-based fertilizers used in south Florida's sugarcane fields near Lake Okeechobee. Fueled by these fertilizers, toxic blue-green algae coated 90% of the massive 730-square-mile lake just this past July. Historically flowing south through its own natural wetlands filtration process, the Army Corps of Engineers altered Lake Okeechobee's releases to the east and west coasts of Florida to protect the surrounding agricultural industries. Now, when these polluted discharges occur, they meet up with–and feed–the coast's red tide.
Mac Stone, an Everglades conservation photographer has been documenting the algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding waterways. He explains: "For the person that says, 'red tide is natural,' you say, okay, yes, you might be right. Red tide is natural, but why would we want to give more fuel to that fire? Why would we want to do anything that could exacerbate an already really bad problem, and encourage that fire to come closer and closer to shore–which is what we do with these discharges."
In early October, the Outdoor Industry Association launched its #VoteTheOutdoors initiative, encouraging the outdoor community to get educated on how their elected officials have voted on environmental issues, and to support those who support the outdoors.
This year's toxic algae blooms in Florida deserve attention for several reasons. The severity of the events have implications for the local tourism-based economy, the protection of endangered animals and plant life, the health of the area's residents, and the drinking water for approximately 8 million Florida constituents. The outdoor community is quick to look toward well-known mountain ranges and scenic desert landscapes for inspiration, but how Florida's constituents are responding to the year's algae events in these enigmatic southeastern wetlands deserves a closer look. Their response is "voting the outdoors" in action.
Impact of Poor Water Management on Local Businesses & Outdoor Recreation
The 20th century economy of Florida was heavily based in agriculture and development, and the re-engineering of the Everglades watershed was designed to accommodate these industries. Historically, Lake Okeechobee would flood each wet season and slowly send those floodwaters south through the Everglades. Sugarcane farmers found this fickle process of flooding disruptive to efficiency and profit. With half a million acres of sugarcane directly south of the lake, and two deadly hurricanes in the 1920s, a dike was established that nearly enclosed the lake. This has since improved sugarcane production by controlling where, how, and when the lake releases its floodwaters.
As Florida has become better known for Disney World, beaches, and real estate than sugarcane, the harmful effects of fertilizer drained into waterways directly impacts Florida's modern economy. Beaches stinking of dead sea life and rivers resembling toxic pea soup is a hard sell for travel agents.
Through his photography trips, Mac Stone has seen firsthand how the fertilizer-fueled algae blooms impact local businesses: "I photographed on a Saturday and Sunday during the height of the algae bloom near St. Lucie River, and what was really striking to me was what I didn't see. I mean, of course, all the water was lime green and just so unnatural looking. But, on a Saturday and a Sunday in south Florida in the summer, I only saw one boat on the water. Just one. So, people are not only enraged, but they're terrified."
While photographing, a marina owner walked over to chat with Stone, remarking on how bad the situation was. The owner asked for a telling favor–to not publish the name of the marina when Stone published the photos. He was worried that if people saw those photos, he may lose business from potential out-of-state customers and suffer from cancelled memberships.
Captains for Clean Water is a grassroots nonprofit organization that advocates for clean water and healthy estuaries in southern Florida. It started simply with a group of fishing guides who had seen the destruction of the current water management system first-hand and wanted to educate others on the issue. Captain Chris Wittman is the organization's Program Director. He echoed the concern raised by the marina owner.
"Water quality directly affects our entire economy here," he explains. "It affects the health and quality of our estuaries. This affects our business as fishing guides, as far as people not wanting to fish. But, it affects all the other businesses, as well. They're interconnected. People that come here to fish with me are staying in hotels and eating out at restaurants. If we don't have healthy estuaries and clean water, they go elsewhere."
Michie has worked hard to accommodate tourists visiting the area who are concerned about the red tide event, shifting people around to different properties less impacted by the smell or sight of the algae. She posts daily photos of what the beaches look like to keep guests informed about current conditions. However, she has still experienced some cancellations, often from visitors with respiratory issues or compromised immune systems who can't risk potential reactions to the toxic blooms.
Galvanizing Support for Environmental Issues Facing the Everglades Watershed
The silver lining of the algae blooms' economic impacts this year is that more people are paying attention to water management issues. Several concerned stakeholders are finding ways to leverage this increased awareness into action, emphasizing education as a key tool.
Stone believes people need to see the issue in order to learn: "If someone has no idea what the algae bloom looks like, when you say algae is choking the waterways, it's like, okay, well, algae is a plant, so what's the big deal?"
You don't need to be a scientist to see Stone's photos of the blooms and know they are bad, especially when paired with his past photos of the region: "I've spent so much time in the Everglades and have photographed down there for so long that I have a really large body of work. It not only shows what we have, but also what we've lost, and what we're losing. All of that helps to paint a full picture of the issues facing the Glades."
Captain Wittman has also spent enough years in this watershed to be able to raise alarm on the changes he's seen take place: "I grew up hunting in the Everglades. It's one of the most unique places in the country. As an outdoorsman, you want to see those places healthy. The hunting and fishing communities understand that these ecosystems are exactly that–they're systems, they're connected; when one part of the system is changed, the whole system suffers."
In 2000, Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a total of 68 projects aimed at restoring the system's natural water flow. At the "We're more than halfway through the timeframe and they haven't fully completed a single project. There are a number of projects that are underway, but there hasn't been enough political will to really expedite the funding and the construction and implementation of the plan," Wittman laments. "What Captains for Clean Water does is educate our communities, people within the fishing, boating, and outdoor communities, and in the tourism and hospitality industries on what the problems and solutions are–what the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan is, what the science says. We are then able to get them to take action and put pressure on their policymakers to push for Everglades restoration funding and implementation. It is when the public is not engaged that our policymakers continue to kick the can down the road and delay progress."
Meanwhile, the Everglades Foundation has taken these messages on the road. About two years ago, the organization did a 12-day, 22-city bus tour called Now or Neverglades to garner support outside of the environmental community. They coordinated people going to Tallahassee during the legislative session to voice support for a reservoir to be built south of Lake Okeechobee. This reservoir would allow for water from Lake Okeechobee to be filtered and then sent south along its slow, historic path to Florida Bay. Restoring this natural flow would be of benefit to the environments south of the lake that rely on the freshwater, while also reducing the nutrient-rich runoffs being pushed east and west, feeding toxic algae blooms along the way.
"When we would travel around and talk to groups, people would hear the issues and see the photographs, and they would say, 'What can we do to help?'" says Everglades Foundation CEO, Eric Eikenberg. "So, we created an advocacy tool right from your smartphone, telling people to text the word 'water' to the number 52886. People would pull out their phones, text that number, and immediately get a link back. They click on the link, punch in their zip code, and it gives them their Congress members, their senators, their state representatives, the governor. We would have a pre-written message urging, in this case, to pass legislation to construct a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee."
Through that advocacy tool, Eikenberg estimates they sent around 70,000 emails to elected officials just in the last year: "For us to be able to–right then and there–get folks to engage has been extremely helpful."
In early October, the United States Congress approved a bill that would fund the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. President Trump signed it into law on October 23, 2018.
Putting Pressure on Political Candidates to Support the Outdoors
This strong and growing educational effort, paired with residents' concerns about the algae blooms, has forced a conversation along this election's campaign trail that has knocked down historically partisan walls.
"It's not a Republican issue, it's not a Democrat issue," Michie states, reflecting on her experience with the issue as a local business owner and long-time resident. "This is a water issue. People are really getting the word out about the candidates to vote for that support water. For the first time, people who have always voted their party line have said, 'Nope, we're crossing over, we're voting water.'"
According to the Florida Atlantic University Business and Economics Polling Initiative, 35.3% of voters blame Rick Scott's governorship for the severity of the algae problem. This is nearly double those who blame Senator Bill Nelson, who Scott is now campaigning to unseat. Indeed, Scott has encountered impassioned voters at his campaign events, chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Red Tide Rick has got to go!"
As governor, Scott cut nearly a billion dollars from agencies managing the state's freshwater systems, as well as several staff positions at environmental protection agencies tasked with enforcing pollution regulations. Scott also failed to act on a deal that would have bought back land from the sugar farms and allowed for a larger reservoir to be built south of Lake Okeechobee. As a result, Scott is one example of voters demanding to know which candidates accept money from the sugar industry.
"I believe that candidates and politicians are understanding that you can't be beholden to an industry who wants the status quo," Eikenberg remarks.
The algae issue has popped up in campaign ads, as well as candidates' speeches and promises to their constituents. Rick Scott employed a digital floating billboard targeting beachgoers that attacked Nelson for a lack of action in Washington to address the state's water pollution. Nelson released an ad highlighting editorials that have blamed Scott's policies as governor for the algae crisis, concluding: "The waters are murky, but the fact is clear. Rick Scott caused this problem." Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum has been focused on his environmental record and has made statements about his plans to add more scientists to environmental state boards.
"Water quality in Florida was not even a blip on the radar in campaigns just six to ten years ago," says Captain Wittman. "Today it's the number one issue on campaigns across all positions. The narrative within the political realm with candidates and elected officials has drastically changed since getting the public educated and engaged in the fight for Everglades restoration."
Eikenberg echoes this sentiment: "It's the number one issue politically in the state of Florida, I would argue, since at least the summertime. For people, it doesn't matter what their party affiliation is or their socio-economic status–they're outraged, and they want to see it fixed. It's bringing together realtors, anglers, boat manufacturers, and business owners, those that rely upon tourism here in Florida. I mean, we experience 125 million tourists a year in the state."
"People always thought water management fixes and policies were the thing for the green thumbs and the tree huggers. But now, they're beginning to realize that this is the state's greatest natural resource, and that water affects everybody," Stone concludes.
If You Love the Outdoors, Florida's Fight is Your Fight, Too
The ways in which diverse groups of stakeholders have come together in Florida to fight for the Everglades is what voting for the outdoors needs to look like. Floridians are seeing the interconnectedness of their state's environmental issues, not just locally, but nationally and internationally, as well.
"Florida is a massive component to the outdoor industry," Captain Wittman states. "Many of the goods sold in Florida around outdoor recreation are produced in other states. Look at YETI from Texas, or Simms from Montana, or Orvis from Connecticut. There are thousands of companies that are housed around this country that have a major piece of their revenue come from Florida, and an effect on those companies would be felt in those communities."
Whoever Florida elects this month will have to answer to a public that is ready for change, and ready for cleaner water. These elected officials will be responsible for ensuring that the approved reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee doesn't slip through the cracks. Despite estimates that this project could take 10 to 15 years, Eikenberg is hopeful that it can be built within the first term of the new governor.
"The Army Corps of Engineers is going to be part of this," Eikenberg explains. "And the Army Corps was sent over to rebuild the Mosul dam in Iraq. They did it in less than a year, and they did it under artillery fire. So, that agency, when it demonstrates a sense of urgency, can really accomplish things in a swift period of time. This notion that it's going to take 10 to 15 years to build this reservoir, that's unconscionable, that cannot stand. The money's already been set aside to build this project, and now we need the water management district and the Army Corps of Engineers to move it up in the schedule. Let's build it in the next four years."
Stone hones in on the larger significance of Florida completing these projects: "It's about the solutions we're tackling, and about approaching being able to solve these problems. The ways that we solve this issue are going to hold implications for wetlands all over the world, not only in our country. These are real problems that–if we manage to solve–can be real benchmarks for other wetland systems."
"If Yosemite, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, you know, all of our iconic national parks, if they were threatened the way that the Everglades is threatened, we would be outraged. And we should be outraged!" Eikenberg exclaims. "So, Americans sitting anywhere in this country need to engage themselves, they need to tell their members of Congress, their senators, to restore America's Everglades. Every day we're pushing, we're moving the needle to ensure that people understand that if we don't fix it now, if we don't truly restore the Everglades today, you can kiss it goodbye tomorrow. And, I'm not, with four kids ages 12, 10, 9, and 8, going to allow myself, my generation, to lose one of the greatest natural resources in the world. And that's not hyperbole; it's a passionate issue that I'm just honored to be a part of."
It's not just this election where people need to remember to "vote the outdoors." It's every election, and it's every day. Advocacy can't stop when the election ends. These places are worth saving, and constituents need to continue to hold elected officials accountable until–and even after–the job is done. If you need inspiration, look no further than the dedicated residents fighting to save the mysterious and remarkable mangrove- and sawgrass-laden Everglades of southern Florida–the only Everglades in the world.
All Photos By: Kris Laurie