A recent large-scale algal bloom in Southwest Florida had residents concerned about both their financial and physical well-being. Recent rainfall has diluted much of the bloom, but questions about the future of state water pollution rules remain.
On the surface, things look fine. “The water here now is crystal clear. Look down about four feet, and it’s covered with this green silt,” says Alva resident Richard Spence, describing the effect recent rains have had on a major algal bloom that was harshly affecting the area up till last week. ”Maybe some has moved out, but a lot has been pushed to the bottom. ”
Spence, a convenience store owner, suffered financial setbacks as a result of the bloom. While he normally sells about 35-45 to-go sandwiches a day (mainly for people boating along the river), that number dropped to zero in recent months. And though life is mostly back to normal for Alva residents, Spence and others like him are still upset. “I’ve never seen it like it was this year,” he says. “It will probably be even worse next year.”
Alva’s state representative, Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, is opposed to a set of water pollution standards mandated by the EPA that could help thwart algal blooms and fish kills.
Kreegel, like many other state lawmakers, say that implementing the EPA’s “numeric nutrient criteria” could be costly for agriculture companies and citrus growers. But those agricultural interests are partly to blame for the problem. The major contributors to nutrient pollution in waterways are failing septic tanks, home fertilizer and industry runoff. Large farms use water to spray their crops, the water mixes with fertilizer (and, often, manure), and runs back into the waterway — leading to conditions that are ripe for algal growth. Algal blooms are not just noxious and ugly, they cut off oxygen to other marine life — leading to fish and even mammal deaths.
Residents of Alva lay much of the blame on the citrus, beef and sugar industries. Kreegel lists beef and citrus associations among his “affiliations” on his House of Representatives profile.
In a recent interview with The Florida Independent, Kreegel said that he is “still at a quandary” about how to clean up Florida’s water without negatively impacting Florida’s economy. Wary of claims that U.S. Sugar is a major contributor to algal blooms, Kreegel said that the water coming out of Sugar “already filters through filter strips and marshes, and nitrogen content and phosphorus content is already quite low.”
Kreegel’s constituents aren’t necessarily angry at him. Some even admitted to donating to his campaigns in the past. But so did members of the agricultural industry — to the tune of at least $18,000 during his 2008 campaign. According to data released on Follow the Money, Kreegel received at least $1,500 from the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida during his 2008 run. According to the site, agriculture interests contributed at least $16,500.
Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann doesn’t find fault with Kreegel, but with the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers, who are jointly responsible for approving permits in the area.
As previously reported by the Independent, the South Florida Water Management District released only one inch of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee during this summer’s drought. Less water means less flow — a ripe condition for an algal bloom. The District released around 15 inches to an area that includes the Everglades Agricultural Area, home to U.S. Sugar.
“[Kreegel] lives outside of Alva, so he might not have been witness to the bloom,” says Mann. “He’s not here that much, in fairness. The most frustrating part, by far, is the water managers.”
The recent rainfall in Alva quickly got rid of the majority of the bloom. Many residents say that just one healthy release from the Okeechobee could have also done the trick. “We got to eat and we need a healthy agricultural industry. Everybody understands that,” says Mann. “What is so frustrating to us, is the relatively small amount of release required to deal with the problem. Nature did for us what the Corps of Engineers and the District would not allow.”
According to concerned residents of Alva, the problem didn’t disappear with the algal bloom. Most are confident the situation will repeat itself. “We have periodic dry spells,” says Mann. “This certainly will happen again and agriculture will want its share again and we’ll be at the same point.”
Mann points to the District’s recent call for “shared adversity” to protect the area’s water resources. The District has touted the importance of “cooperation” and said that both agricultural interests and citizens must cut back on water use.
“Even though they say that everybody is supposed to share the pain … we know that agriculture has been the beneficiary of certain releases,” he says. “We feel like step-children. The District has adopted this idea of ‘shared adversity’ and this was their chance to really exercise it. I think they failed.”