Algae crisis explodes into leading campaign issue in Florida

No one seems to have a solution.

Green algae is seen in the St. Lucie River near Phipps Park on July 13, 2018 in Stuart, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Green algae is seen in the St. Lucie River near Phipps Park on July 13, 2018 in Stuart, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Tensions over a growing environmental crisis in Florida have exploded into a full-blown campaign issue as candidates face-off over how to solve the problem and who is to blame.

The worst toxic algae bloom to hit Florida’s Gulf Coast in a decade is decimating marine life — killing thousands of fish, in addition to dolphins, manatees, turtles, and potentially a whale shark. Humans are also suffering the effects — the “red tide”, so named because of the rust color the algae lends to the water, can be deeply detrimental to people. Floridians have reported respiratory issues and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has cautioned that algae can also induce nausea and other extreme symptoms, like vomiting.

Red tide is nothing new in Florida, where algae is routine. But the current onslaught is the worst the state has seen in years. It also coincides with the 2018 midterm elections, and with tensions running high among residents, candidates are scrambling to address the issue.

Those in the hot seat include Gov. Rick Scott (R), who is running to unseat Sen. Bill Nelson (D). Scott, a two-term governor, and Nelson, a three-term senator, have sparred for months, but the algae issue has proven particularly contentious.


A number of lawmakers largely point to Central Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater lake, as the source of the algae. When the lake’s waters grow too high, water is released by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent flooding. That sends the algae growing on top of the lake into the ocean, where it grows and thrives.

Scott has taken aim at Nelson over the lake. Last week, his campaign released an ad criticizing Nelson over allowing discharges from Lake Okeechobee and calling him a “talker, not a doer” who waits on federal agencies — namely, the Army Corps — while Florida struggles with the algae crisis.

Nelson, by contrast, has hit out at Scott over poor environmental policies and pointed to the governor’s history of climate denial. The Democratic senator has argued that Scott, whose campaign is heavily bankrolled by fossil fuel interests, helped contribute to the crisis through his lackluster commitment to sustainable climate efforts.

Scott has notably slashed environmental funding as governor, including for the South Florida Water Management District and for state water-quality monitoring stations, hindering the work researchers can do.

“Florida’s algae bloom crisis is a man-made crisis, made by this man,” declares one Nelson ad.

Much of the tension underlying the issue is thanks to its scale. Some 100 miles of Florida’s coastline are currently impacted by red tide. Algae bloom, or microorganisms, emit brevetoxins that in turn jeopardize the health of humans and animals, in addition to harming the environment.


Its prevalence has left Florida’s tourism industry struggling during its peak season, in addition to harming residents who rely on the beach as a cooling mechanism during broiling Southern summer months. That economic toll has helped to supercharge the growing dispute over the red tide.

The source of the algae is also a topic of debate, one that the Nelson-Scott clash has fed. Algae grows naturally but it feeds off of nutrients. Scientists have pointed to runoff from agricultural operations as a leading culprit, noting that such pollution feeds and encourages algae. So do warming waters, making climate change an underlying factor, something experts note even as they struggle to pinpoint the full spectrum of contributing factors to the algae crisis.

Natural disasters worsened by warming weather, like hurricanes, also don’t help — Hurricane Irma’s arrival last year brought Florida a significant uptick in rain over areas like Lake Okeechobee, causing water levels to rise.

But Scott and Nelson aren’t alone in bickering. Rep. Ron DeSantis has also targeted fellow Republican Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, over the algae, blasting Putnam’s ties to the sugar industry.

That industry has been linked to nutrient runoff, something DeSantis has highlighted. Putnam has responded by defending his record on water issues. Some of those candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to unseat DeSantis, meanwhile, are swearing off sugar industry contributions.

While candidates lob accusations at each other, residents are more interested in solutions. Scott has declared a state of emergency for seven counties, while Nelson has sought federal funding to help research the issue, in addition to tax breaks for some of those impacted by the algae. But it’s unclear what will sway voters, as many briefly abandon their homes in search of relief from the algae.


Green groups have also lent their weight to the growing divisions, particularly in the senate race. Frank Jackalone, who heads the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, told the Washington Post that the algae issue is more of a state problem than a federal one — making Scott more of a culprit than Nelson.

“Bill Nelson has one vote in the U.S. Senate. Rick Scott is the governor of Florida and has had the power to enforce the Clean Water Act in the state,” Jackalone said. “He could have enforced pollution regulations. Instead, he cut back funding, rolled back regulations, and eliminated a large part of his enforcement staff.”