When Will Robinson ran for state representative last fall, one issue became inescapable. With no-swim advisories, rotting fish and hotel cancellations dominating headlines, the algal blooms savaging Florida’s west coast became an inescapable political issue.

“Even at my victory party,” he recalls, “a supporter said to me, ‘Will, do something. Big or small; do something about red tide.’” So when now-state Rep. Robinson, R-Bradenton, arrived in Tallahassee, one of his first acts was the filing of legislation requiring septic tank inspections. He’s not the only lawmaker in Florida’s capital with algae on his mind. State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, quickly announced legislation to increase fines for sewage spills. Elsewhere, lawmakers filed legislation to fund water management projects around Lake Okeechobee, to fund incentives for septic-to-sewer conversions and to encourage research into the environmental conditions that caused an historic red tide on the coast last year. On top of it all, Gov. Ron DeSantis, 48 hours after his swearing in, signed an executive order promising $2.5 billion in water quality initiatives over the next four years. In Sarasota, he announced the creation of a chief science officer position in his administration and met with Mote Marine Laboratory leaders about the best way to tackle algae moving forward. As the Florida Legislature prepared to convene for regular session on March 5, it’s clear there’s something new in the water.

ILLUSTRATION BY WOODY WOODMAN.

For Robinson, fighting red tide is more than a campaign promise. He ran for two years on an environmental platform, but things turned somewhat personal this year when the Robinson Preserve, a Manatee County park opened on land donated for public use by his grandfather, reported algae in its waterways for the first time.

Indeed, no waterway in the region during the fall of 2018 proved immune to blooms, state officials say. Gil McRae, director of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, says a state of emergency ultimately had to be called in coastal counties from Bay County south around Florida’s tip to Broward County based on widespread reports of red tide. Ultimately, the state dumped more than $14 million in emergency spending last year toward cleaning up dead fish from beaches and vacuuming red tide from the sea.

But there remains confusion even among scientists about what made last year the worst on record for red tide. Scientists say not since the 1940s has Florida experienced this type of event, but it has happened before. The timing of water discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River in July, something that spawned blue-green algae blooms in the river, fed a widespread concern among environmentalists that nutrients there fed red tide when they hit estuaries and reached the Gulf of Mexico.

“We’ve seen the result of bad water management practices,” says Daniel Andrews, executive director of Captains for Clean Water. 

There’s wide consensus that whatever caused red tide algae to spread to Florida beaches all along the coast, nutrient enrichment did exacerbate problems. But scientists also stressed that lawmakers need to carefully study the issues before jumping to conclusions. 

“Knee-jerk reactions can lead to bigger problems if we don’t deal with them in proper ways,” says Dr. Michael Crosby, president of Mote Marine Laboratory, to DeSantis during his Sarasota stop in January.

And there’s already some concern that legislation proposed by lawmakers looks more toward showing commitment to the issue than solving the problem. Robinson looks to put septic inspections in place that Florida lawmakers a few years ago. And local municipal officials also worry whether Gruters’ proposal to charge $1-per-gallon fines for sewage spills will be too punitive.

Gruters, though, after seeing the impacts of red tide, says his priority remains on accountability and on prevention of further environmental disasters. His legislation would institute fines whether a sewage spill comes from a private or public utility. He filed legislation days after a City of Sarasota sewer line rupture resulted in a 900,000-gallon spill into Sarasota Bay.

“We need to make polluters pay, and we need to do everything we can to raise dollars to fully fund red tide research,” Gruters says. But he stresses the focus isn’t on punishment but on finding solutions. The bill has provisions that say a utility, in lieu of a fine, can pay for $2-per-gallon worth of improvements to sewer systems. That means, for example, that the Sarasota spill would have resulted either in a $900,000 penalty, or the city could negotiate with the Department of Environmental Protection to exact $1.8 million in improvements instead.

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin has looked at the bill, and while he appreciates the sentiment, fears the bill remains too punitive.As far as the spill in December goes, Barwin says it was simply a failure in a pipe 50 years before it should have been replaced that caused the problem. The city prides itself on constant improvements. Indeed, in 2018, the city performed $12 million in upgrades to a utility that brought in $15 million operating in revenues. It’s not clear whether routine maintenance could count toward the fine alternative. But Barwin says if not for proper bypasses being installed in the city system, the spill could have been much worse, and rather than discharging sewage for hours, it could have gone on for days. If that led to a fine worth tens of millions, it could cripple the city. For a smaller municipal utility, it could bankrupt it. “That could exacerbate a crisis,” Barwin says. “I just don’t think fines, or threats of fines, are fair to the rate-payer and the citizens.”

Gruters says he understands concerns. But right now, some major sewage spill gets reported somewhere in Florida each month. “It’s always an accident,” he says. But the consequences of pouring hundreds of thousands of gallons into waters where red tide bloomed a few months ago remain too high.