Instead of pristine beaches and world-class sport fishing, tourists considering a trip to Florida last summer saw TV images of toxic algae: a blue-green goo that coated the waterways of both of Florida’s central coasts. They saw footage of massive fish die-offs, beach closures and fishing restrictions and heard descriptions of an overpowering, sickening stench.
Like it or not, those news reports affected Florida tourism, and not just in the affected areas. There were cancellations along both our coasts, from Fleming Island to Key West and from Naples to the Panhandle.
Last summer’s was the second toxic algae outbreak in two years. This time, it forced Gov. Rick Scott to declare a “State of Emergency” that lasted 242 days.
The outbreaks happen because polluted water from Lake Okeechobee is flushed out to the coasts as a flood control measure: there is no other place to put it. The lake’s bottom contains decades of accumulated fertilizers, which stimulates the growth of algae that is toxic to humans and wildlife.
At the same time, the discharge of fresh water alters the salinity of the coastal waterways and estuaries, killing sea grasses where sport fish feed and spawn.
For 20 years, scientists have agreed on the solution. We need greater water storage south of the lake to store the runoff so it can be cleaned and sent into the Everglades and on to Florida Bay, where the problem is too little fresh water.
Building a 60,000-acre, 120-billion gallon reservoir is too big a job for the private sector, or even for a single state. That’s why a bipartisan majority of both Houses of Congress authorized the federal government to pick up half the cost – but that was nearly two decades ago.
Florida politicians have wasted the intervening years pointing fingers and dragging heels – at least until Sen. Rob Bradley(R-Fleming Island) stepped into the breech and introduced Florida Senate Bill 10.
Bradley’s bill establishes a process to negotiate the purchase of land for the reservoir and sets aside funds to pay the state’s share of the cost.
Bradley’s district includes Orange Park and Fleming Island, areas well north of the outbreaks. He realizes, though, that hotels, motels and marinas in every part of coastal Florida underwent cancellations from tourists who, having seen the news stories, decided to spend their vacation dollars elsewhere.
No matter how much money we spend on glitzy TV ads promoting Florida vacations, it will all be undone by a single story on CBS News showing incoming tides of what looks like spoiled guacamole.
The Florida peninsula is a big and complex place, but we are all interconnected in our relationship to the water: Bradley realizes that a water crisis anywhere in Florida is a water crisis everywhere.
As an ex-prosecutor, Bradley’s proposal reflects his own common-sense conservative values.
Rather than “big government” flexing its muscles in a land grab, Bradley respects the private property rights of the existing landowners. Under his bill, every inch of the 60,000 acres will be sold at a negotiated price from willing sellers – not seized by eminent domain.
In 2014, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the Amendment 1 ballot measure, which sets aside a portion of Document Tax revenues to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Bradley’s approach authorizes bonding part of the Trust Fund’s proceeds to pay the state’s share of the reservoir.
Some conservatives have been heard to complain that bonding – any bonding – is itself an irresponsible extension of public debt.
These folks need to realize that however frugal we are, some infrastructure investments (like this reservoir) are essential. In such cases, the alternative to bonding is to impose taxes to pay the costs upfront. In such cases, bonding is a prudent use of borrowing for the same reason that people sign home mortgages and car loans.
Rob Bradley’s proposal isn’t a matter of “big” government or “small” government. It’s a matter of “responsible” government – and he has crafted it in a way conservatives should be proud to support.
Eric Eikenberg is chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation and a long time Republican activist.