Florida’s biggest environmental controversy is going to follow candidates into the general election

The issue that shaped the primaries isn't going away.

Fish are seen washed ashore the Sanibel causeway after dying in a red tide on August 1, 2018 in Sanibel, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Fish are seen washed ashore the Sanibel causeway after dying in a red tide on August 1, 2018 in Sanibel, Florida. CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

MIAMI, FLORIDA — Tuesday will mark an end to a number of Florida campaigns after voters have their say at the polls. But the environmental crisis that has largely dominated the state’s primary season is set to follow candidates into the general election, whether they like it or not.

“It’s a shame when our beautiful beaches have to be closed to the public due to the toxic algae crisis, but it’s a necessary step to protect people’s health,” wrote the official Twitter account for Democratic Senator Bill Nelson’s re-election campaign on Monday. “This is what happens after years of slashing critical environmental protections.”

Nelson is set to face Gov. Rick Scott (R) in November, meaning that the next two months will continue to see the rivals face off over one of Florida’s biggest environmental crises in years.

Florida’s coastline has been plagued for months by “red tide” — a toxic algae bloom composed of colonies of algae that have grown out of control and that cause the water to appear red.


That bloom has killed thousands of fish, numerous dolphins and manatees, and at least one whale shark. It has devastated Florida’s usually booming summer tourism industry, shuttering beaches and turning away visitors. Above all, it has impacted human health, giving residents headaches and nausea.

Controversy over the red tide has spilled over into the election, leading candidates to take a bipartisan stance on committing to tackling the crisis, even as they level blame for the issue at rivals.

That finger-pointing has been most prominent in the Scott-Nelson race. In early August, Scott’s campaign released an ad accusing Nelson of allowing the Army Corps of Engineers to release too much water from Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake. Algae often collects on the surface of Okeechobee and when the lake’s water rises too high, Army Corps members release some of it, allowing algae to enter other bodies of water in the state.

“Algae from Lake Okeechobee, polluting our waterways, making them an eyesore, reducing our quality of life,” the ad ominously declares, over footage of soupy, green algae. It goes on to accuse Nelson of allowing agencies like the Corps to dictate Florida’s approach to the problem, thereby costing residents.


The governor’s detractors took issue with that characterization of Nelson and argued it marked a pivot from Scott’s own record. Scott, who has a long history of climate denial, has received large-scale support for his campaign from the fossil fuel industry. While algae is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, scientists are increasingly concerned that with climate change, warmer water temperatures are allowing red tide to thrive.

That’s in addition to the hypothesis that Hurricane Irma likely worsened this year’s algae crisis, as its powerful winds and waves allowed more nutrients into the water to feed the algae. Worsening hurricanes in the region have consistently been linked to climate change.

There’s more than enough blame to go around, however, with other candidates leveling accusations at Florida’s sugar industry.

At least one scientist, however, Karl Havens, a professor who directs the Florida Sea Grant Program at the University of Florida, told ThinkProgress that the industry is no more to blame for the algae than any other source of agricultural runoff in Florida. Environmentalists have pointed to agriculture more broadly as a leading culprit.

That hasn’t stopped Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) from accusing rival Adam Putnam, Florida’s agriculture commissioner, of being too cozy with Big Sugar. Both men are vying to become the state’s next governor, with DeSantis expected to emerge the victor. The conservative lawmaker has historically opposed the government subsidies received by the sugar industry, in keeping with the stance of right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.


But DeSantis’ current stance is popular with environmentalists and echoes talking points more typical of his potential future rivals. On the Democratic side, all five candidates duking it out for the party’s nomination have sworn off donations from the sugar industry, with that pledge likely to carry over into the general election.

At a town hall in Miami addressing local climate issues on Monday night, environmental advocates emphasized that voters should make their thoughts about issues like the algae crisis clear, both on Tuesday and in November.

“Every time [people] vote or don’t vote, they’re choosing a future for all of us,” warned Caroline Lewis, the executive director of the Miami-based non-profit CLEO Institute.

Candidates seem keenly aware of the staying power exerted by red tide algae. Last Thursday, Nelson and fellow Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) introduced a bill to require a federal algae department to be created that would both mitigate and control the bloom in South Florida.

“We need all hands on deck to help, and this bill will provide scientists and researchers the resources they need to understand what’s causing these harmful algae blooms — and what needs to be done to stop them,” said Nelson in a statement.

Scott, by contrast, has largely stayed mum on the topic in the week leading up to the primary. That trend isn’t likely to hold — candidates will face questions about the algae crisis long after the results roll in Tuesday night and well into November.