Rebecca Renner for Grist
It was a sweltering late summer day in southern Florida when Becky Harris took her dogs to run along the bank of the St Lucie River. Her white Pomeranian, Pandora, was off leash while Kylie, her Rottweiler mix, trotted alongside her. Suddenly, Pandora took off down the grassy hill toward the beach and was soon tearing into a dead fish. Harris tried to yank it out of her mouth, but Pandora bolted under the sea grapes to polish it off.
Within hours, the normally bouncy Pandora was so lethargic that her head fell into her water bowl. Harris took Pandora to the closest veterinary ER. By the next day, Pandora’s liver was failing. Harris already suspected the cause: the toxic algal bloom. Gunk full of blue-green algae known as cyanobacteria had spewed from Lake Okeechobee into the river near her home in Stuart, a short drive north of West Palm Beach.
Within two weeks, at least six more dogs were sickened and a dead sea turtle washed ashore. After a poodle named Finn died, an autopsy concluded that microcystin, the toxin in cyanobacteria associated with liver damage in mammals, was the cause. Finn also had high levels of the neurotoxin BMAA in his brain.
All this took place last August, during the summer that algae ate Florida. Cyanobacteria filled Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest lake, while another pollution-induced environmental hazard, red tide, crept up both of Florida’s coasts, reaching as far north as Daytona Beach. Tourists questioned whether it was safe to take a dip in Florida’s waters. Governor Rick Scott eventually declared a state of emergency. In a few short months, the Sunshine state’s algae crisis went from a rumor residents shrugged off to a top campaign issue in the 2018 election.
As candidates were out surveying the muck – with plenty of time for photo-ops, of course – Harris’ Pomeranian was fighting for her life in the veterinary hospital. Harris made plans with an in-home pet euthanasia specialist before the light returned to Pandora’s eyes. Even though the 54-year-old Harris calls the turnaround a miracle, she said she was “pissed” that the Army Corps of Engineers discharged the slime from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie River in the first place. “These discharges, they’re not just bad for our environment,” Harris said. The real-estate property manager worries that the algae is putting people’s health at risk.
Activists, including south Florida’s Sierra Club chapters and Bull Sugar – a not-for-profit organization that protects central Florida estuaries – believed there was a link between toxic algae and neurodegeneration in animals, and there’s research to back them up. They tried to educate their neighbors even as some continued to boat and swim in the mucky water. But it wasn’t the environmentalists or the dog owners who forced Florida’s politicians to take notice. They started paying attention because the ugly green slop (as well as the red tide) had started damaging businesses, with significant losses reported in the real estate, commercial fishing and tourism industries.
As the state’s environmental woes took a toll on businesses across Florida, the then US representative Ron DeSantis began telling voters he’d clean it all up if they elected him governor – and he won, in part on that promise. The early returns suggest he’s delivering. Despite earning a lifetime score of 2% on the League of Conservation Voters’ environmental scorecard during his six years in the House of Representatives, the Republican has proposed shifts from the pro-business (and pro-polluting) policies of his predecessor.
“For Florida, the quality of our water and environmental surroundings are foundational to our prosperity as a state – it doesn’t just drive tourism; it affects property values, anchors many local economies, and is central to our quality of life,” DeSantis said at his inauguration.
The steps the governor has offered could clean up the state’s waterways, save its coasts, and provide a template for how a Republican executive can do right by the environment in a time when stewardship seems bitterly partisan. “People from both parties are pleasantly surprised,” said Carol Weissert, a political science professor at Florida State University.
DeSantis hitched his campaign for governor to Donald Trump’s rising star. He ran an ad that included chanting of the ubiquitous refrain about building a wall and reading The Art of the Deal to his baby.
After a Trump endorsement helped propel him through the Republican primary, DeSantis faced Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee who ran on a progressive platform. It was a stark contrast to DeSantis, who said he would have vetoed the bill that called for stricter gun control in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland. He also supported tightening immigration enforcement and repealing the Affordable Care Act. Hours after he won Florida’s Republican primary, DeSantis remarked that voters would “monkey this up” if they voted for Gillum, a comment that earned him accusations of racist dog-whistling. Soon after, he was sporting a red Make America Great Again cap – but with Trump’s ratings so low in the state, many voters thought Gillum would be a shoo-in.
But Trump’s backing wasn’t the only factor in the election: there was also the slime that was seemingly everywhere. By July, an outbreak of cyanobacteria covered more than 90% of Lake Okeechobee. Algal blooms happen when pollution, such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer, swills with warm water. Historically, the Everglades was a moving, living body of water. But construction of a dike system below Lake Okeechobee and roads laid throughout the southern portion of the state have slowed and even stagnated the natural southward flow of the Everglades. Combine that with lax policing of anti-pollution policies, and you have a recipe for ecological disaster.
Toxic blue-green algae can quickly poison dogs like Pandora, but its effect on humans and larger mammals is much slower, to the point that many Floridians have denied the risks for years.
Researchers at the University of Miami knew better. They were already studying the algae’s effects on dolphins, which had been washing ashore during the algae bloom, their brains showing the tell-tale degeneration of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s diseases. In their study, published in March, the researchers found high levels of BMAA in the dolphins’ brains, leading them to believe that the neurotoxin, produced by the algae, could be to blame for their deaths. The scientists reasoned that all that BMAA had caused the large mammals’ brains to prematurely age. Dolphins are in the same part of the marine food web as humans – the top – so the researchers believe eating affected seafood could have similar effects on humans. Research to find a definitive cause-and-effect link between algae exposure and dolphin neurodegeneration continues. In the meantime, locals say, “Don’t eat the fish from Lake O.”
Many in Florida blame the then Governor Scott for pushing policies that put business first and the environment second, all with a blind eye to how clearly those two are intertwined in Florida. During his eight years in the governor’s mansion, Scott loosened a variety of protections, creating a recipe for the hell soup served up in the summer of 2018: he cut almost $700m in funding meant to regulate and protect Florida’s waterways. He repealed a law that required septic tank inspections. He filled the state’s five water management boards with people inclined toward catering to big business.
By the end of his term, Scott tried to change his ways. He was running for the Senate, and with Florida’s green gunk splashed all over the news across the country, the environment had become a top issue in his successful race to unseat the Democratic senator Bill Nelson. In his final months as governor, Scott declared a state of emergency to combat the algae. He also ordered an increase in water-quality testing and created a grant program to help small businesses hurt by the bloom. It was too little, too late for Florida’s waters, but for Florida voters, it was just enough to help Scott win.
DeSantis also began to embrace the environment. His campaign platform included proposals to beef up funding for the state’s environmental agency and initiatives to restore and protect Florida’s waters. He talked about stopping algae-thick discharges from Lake Okeechobee. He opposed offshore drilling and sought solutions for the epidemic of red tide that littered Florida’s beaches with dead fish last year.
“I think human activity contributes to our environment. I have always thought that,” DeSantis said in a September press conference after taking a python-filled, harrowing tour of the Everglades in an airboat. “I’m also not somebody who is on the political left that says if there are more hurricanes, it is because of climate change … I’m not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. It’s just a different analysis.”
And even though his plans sought to prepare coastal cities for rising seas, DeSantis’ public stance stuck to the party line: his platform never mentioned the words “climate change”.
Those two words are what Jason Evans, an assistant professor of environmental science at central Florida’s Stetson University*, calls “the third rail of Republicanism”. Evans is an environmental policy expert who makes an effort to talk to Republican voters and politicians about green issues. “I have talked with Republicans privately who acknowledge the science of climate change but have also said pretty explicitly that they can’t talk about it, because their base voters have been conditioned to say that climate change is something that Republicans don’t believe in.”
Evans thinks climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Though DeSantis might agree, he thinks the governor would never come out and say it. “But actions,” Evans said, “can speak louder than words.”
Florida wasn’t always such an environmental garbage fire.
Many Floridians blame much of the water pollution – and therefore the algae problem – on the sugar industry, or “big sugar”. Others, including many agricultural scientists, say the issue is more complicated and that a confluence of sources, including septic runoff, have come together to create Lake Okeechobee’s noxious stew. Regardless of the cause, the lake’s water has become prime real estate for toxic cyanobacteria. And whenever the Army Corps of Engineers discharges it toward the coasts, that algae inundates the estuaries, home to hundreds of plant and animal species, and a step away from countless backyards.
Shortly after moving into the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, DeSantis started laying out steps that he hopes will restore the Everglades’ natural flow as part of a massive plan to clean up Florida’s waters. The plan includes an executive order that sounds like Christmas morning for Florida environmentalists: a focus on green infrastructure, a ban on fracking, more scrutiny of septic tanks, more funding for water monitoring, and a taskforce that would focus on curing Lake Okeechobee of its pollution and blue-green algae woes. DeSantis’s plan also included the appointment of Florida’s first chief science officer.
DeSantis hopes this multi-pronged approach can stop the discharges from Lake Okeechobee along with the algal blooms. He’s promised $2.5bn for Everglades restoration projects. But perhaps more importantly, the governor is reorganizing the water management districts.
Those districts control Florida’s 12,133 square miles of water, an area roughly the size of Maryland. Last year’s bumper crop of algae in many ways can be traced back to crony capitalism practiced by these unelected boards.
The districts are tasked with directing water resources in a way that balances economic growth with the environment. It’s the job of the appointed managers to make sure there’s drinkable water when you turn on the tap. They’re also supposed to grant permits to businesses so they can draw on the water supply in a way that doesn’t harm any of Florida’s delicate ecosystems, especially protected wetlands.
But when Scott started sapping their funding in 2009, the environmental protection function fell by the wayside.
Soon after he took office, DeSantis asked almost the entire South Florida Water Management District, which has jurisdiction as far north as Orlando, to resign. Environmentalists are cheering some of his replacements, including Ronald “Alligator” Bergeron, a former alligator wrestler and state wildlife commissioner. But others are still skeptical. New water managers will mean new interpretations of water policies, which could bring cleaner water to Florida. Or they may offer new justifications for the same policies. Many regulations intended to protect Florida’s water already exist. How they have been enforced, if at all, is another matter.
DeSantis’ funding package made it through Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature in May.
Lawmakers decided to put more than $680m toward addressing Florida’s water woes, with $25m of that specially earmarked for combatting red tide and toxic algae.
“Florida is now on a course towards clean water, a restored Everglades and a healthier environment for generations to come,” DeSantis said at a press conference last month.
For a Republican-led legislature and a Republican governor to turn toward environmental restoration like this isn’t as shocking as it might seem. Even as recently as a decade ago, clean water was seen in the state as sacrosanct, Evans said. “Unlike other areas of the country, there’s a strong conservative tradition here in Florida for actually being pro-environment,” he explained. “If we have clean water, it’s a good idea for beaches and tourism.”
Earlier this year, Becky Harris, with Pandora in tow, met DeSantis when he visited Stuart to announce his water plans.
“I was always a DeSantis fan,” Harris said. “You know, a lot of times what candidates say they’re going to do and then what they do are completely different. I didn’t get the sense from him that he was going to be as great a friend to the environment before the election, but wow, I’m pleasantly surprised.”
When she mentioned Pandora’s near-death experience, the governor said he didn’t know about the dogs. Harris’ story hadn’t spread far enough yet.
That inspired her to do something. Harris has been a lover of the environment all of her life – she recycles and is careful with her water and electrical use. She’s also been a Republican since she started making her own money. But she sees no reason that business should be at odds with the environment.
“Things have gotten so divisive,” Harris said. “There’s too much of this, ‘Oh, you’re a Democrat, oh, you’re a Republican, so you only think this way.’” To her, the environment shouldn’t be strapped to political parties. It’s a matter of life and death for everybody – Democrats, Republicans and, of course, dogs.
So now Harris is a crusader. She’s put all of her ingenuity behind convincing as many people as she can about the dangers of toxic algae. She started a website, toxicdischarges.com, and hands out business cards to everyone she sees. Whenever a politician is in town, she’s ready to take the mic and demand action, and she’s traveled to Tallahassee to try to talk with officials.
Over the past few months, Harris has realized how complicated the process of regulating the environment in a big state truly is. “Ag isn’t the whole problem,” Harris said. “Sugar isn’t the whole problem. Septics aren’t the whole problem. Everything needs to be addressed. And people need to stop pointing fingers and just address it.”
* Disclosure: I teach creative writing at Stetson University, but I had not met Jason Evans before writing this feature. It was just a happy accident that the expert I needed has an office across the street from mine.
This story originally appeared in Grist