By Jennifer Gray, CNN
Updated 7:19 PM ET, Tue August 28, 2018
Cape Coral, Florida (CNN) –Cape Coral, Florida (CNN) Usually, politics and slime go hand-in-hand. “Sliming” a political opponent is well-worn tradition, after all. But in this midterm election season in South Florida, it’s the slime itself that’s driving people to the polls.
Green slime oozing from Lake Okeechobee is polluting Florida’s pristine waterways that flow east and west from the lake and eventually south into the bays and oceans. This disaster has caused a dramatic decline in the economy. It’s the topic of conversation around here. Campaigns are going heavy on the environment. Television ads are focused on the algae and billboards now line the roads. Some voters say they’ve had enough and they want their voices heard in a big way.
Looks like guacamole, smells like eggs
Chris Wittman is on the water daily. He has lived in Florida his entire life and has never seen his backyard so polluted. He lives and works near Cape Coral, Florida, just south of Fort Myers. He has seen a huge decline in the number of boats on the water. “People come here and live in Florida to recreate on the water, to fish and to boat and to ski and swim and this robs them of that,” says Wittman.
The green algae and dead fish are driving them away. He describes it as “offensive.” The algae are the brightest shade of green you can imagine, its consistency is similar to guacamole and smells like rotting eggs and flesh. The smell is so strong it can cause eyes to sting. It’s toxic to touch and dangerous to breathe.
Marine life is dying, the seagrass that the marine life depends on is dying, and so are the waterfowl that utilize the waterways. People are also suffering, as they try to live and work around the toxic water. “I think we’re at a breaking point not only ecologically but economically,” says Wittman, co-founder of Captains for Clean Water, a non-profit organization that’s urging Congress to fix Florida’s water woes. “This is not the Florida that people move here for. There are people that save all their lives to move to Florida, retire … enjoy our natural resources and this is what they’re served.
“There are thousands of small business that make up the largest economic driver in the state of Florida and that’s tourism — they’re directly affected by our poor water quality.” The fishing, boating and tourism industries in Florida provide 1.3 million jobs and contribute $109 billion in state revenue.
“If we don’t fix these things, it could affect our industry forever,” says Wittman. This year has been a one-two punch with a devastating red tide occurring at the same time. This happening simultaneously is unprecedented and has made conditions in Southwest Florida nearly catastrophic. The fishing, boating and tourism industries in Florida provide 1.3 million jobs and contribute $109 billion in state revenue.
“If we don’t fix these things, it could affect our industry forever,” says Wittman. This year has been a one-two punch with a devastating red tide occurring at the same time. This happening simultaneously is unprecedented and has made conditions in Southwest Florida nearly catastrophic. “We’re almost on an ecological collapse. I’ve thought about moving my business to other states where we won’t be impacted by this and it’s just, it’s stressful,” said Nick Fischer, 33, a second-generation fishing captain in Cape Coral.He’s seen rough times, but nothing like this. “I’ve had days where I go pick up my charter and tears almost come to your eyes about what you’re seeing happen to our ecosystem,” he said.
“We’re almost on an ecological collapse. I’ve thought about moving my business to other states where we won’t be impacted by this and it’s just, it’s stressful,” said Nick Fischer, 33, a second-generation fishing captain in Cape Coral. He’s seen rough times, but nothing like this. “I’ve had days where I go pick up my charter and tears almost come to your eyes about what you’re seeing happen to our ecosystem,” he said.
The slime’s source, and a solution
What’s behind the slime? The thick, green algae exploded in the sunlight and warm water as nutrients found in fertilizer and urban runoff made their way into Lake Okeechobee in historic amounts. When the lake gets too high during Florida’s rainy season, billions of gallons of water are released east and west, bottlenecking into estuaries, along with the green algae. It actually goes all the way down the water column, killing marine life, wildlife and seagrass. “This is cyanobacteria. As it decomposes, it releases neurotoxins. This is not just an ecological problem, this is a public safety problem,” Wittman says. The solution is tricky because big problems like this require big funding, in this case, federal dollars that every state wants.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was authorized by Congress in 2000 as a plan to restore, preserve and protect the South Florida ecosystem. This $10.5 billion plan has a 35-year timeline and is considered the largest hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States. Where water is currently flowing east and west from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, this plan would redirect the water released from the lake south into the Everglades, which would restore the state’s natural flow of water. The plan also outlines the need for filtration systems, to filter out the chemicals and nutrients.
Everglades restoration projects are underway, but since the plan was put into place, no projects have been completed. Other plans to reduce the algae problem include a new reservoir and buying land currently used by industry. “We really do have to get a handle on the nutrients that are driving these algae blooms because science has demonstrated that as our climates warm, we are going to see more algae blooms,” said Betty Staugler, a marine scientist with Florida Sea Grant. “We’re going to see more intense algae blooms and we’re going to see them in more places and so unless we want that for our future, we really need to take action today.” Wittman says the state has a long way to go before the problem of contaminated water is gone forever. “Addressing the symptom of these problems will always leave the possibility of this reoccurring again. The solution is Everglades Restoration, addressing the source of the problem so that these issues and these symptoms don’t hit us again next year or the year after for generations to come,” he said.
Residents of coastal areas in Southwest and East Florida who are impacted by this algae say they have had enough and are pressuring political leaders to improve the water quality. But it doesn’t stop there. Companies in the US and around the world who depend on Florida’s healthy water for business are hoping state constituents will go to the polls in large numbers. Fischer has never voted in his life. In fact, he has never even registered to vote — until now “I didn’t feel like I could make a difference and this year I registered to vote specifically to vote for a candidate that’s going to help benefit Florida … whatever’s going to benefit our water and our ecosystems is going to be the main factor,” he said.
Both Republicans and Democrats are promising to fix Florida’s water problems, with the Senate race especially heated. Senate candidate and current Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, claims in one television ad that his Democratic rival, Sen. Bill Nelson, will give Florida voters nothing but more waiting, more talk and more algae. Nelson slings the slime back in an ad, telling voters Scott caused this problem. Voters just want the problem fixed. There have been town hall meetings and rallies for clean water. Wittman and Fischer are ready to vote and hope this year will be the turning point.
Their frustration is growing and some are hoping their new leaders will allocate the funding to fix Florida’s water. “Their constituents are not happy with the current state of their waters, with the current state of their water management system, and they’re more engaged than they’ve ever been,” Wittman says. “They realize that they aren’t going to be able to get around this topic and the citizens are going to hold them accountable.”
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