Cerabino: Blue-green algae bloom creates a fishing hole in Stuart

Irony alert: This summer’s algae bloom shut down the Stuart office of Florida Sportsman magazine, a publication that celebrates fishing in the state’s waters.

“The algae started coming in late June, and then it just grew in the water,” said David Conway, the magazine’s managing editor.

The magazine’s office is on one of the many canals off the St. Lucie River. The putrid guacamole-like algae is a dramatic result of the overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in state waters that feeds a poisonous bloom during the warm summer months and strangles the life out of waterways.

“The ill-effects started two weeks ago,” Conway said. “You get lightheaded and nauseous. I had a bad taste in my mouth. Some people get itchy eyes. And the mucous membranes are irritated.”

Conway said his staff of about a dozen people struggled to work in the office next to the smelly canal as they completed work on the upcoming issue.

“We were able to work until the beginning of last week, and then everybody looked up and said, ‘I feel sick,’” Conway said.

And that was it. The office was closed. Workers were told to work from home.

“We’re going to wait until it’s gone,” Conway said. “We may have to find new office space.”

The toxic algae bloom is the manifestation of decades of neglect.

For the past 20 years, the federal government has tried to get Florida to lower the nutrient pollution in state waters protected by the federal Clean Water Act, only to be met by stubborn non-compliance.

Eight years ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency called for specific numeric limits on pollutants from farmers, municipal wastewater and stormwater utilities operations, and other polluters of state waters.

In a letter responding to the EPA, Gov. Scott, Attorney Gen. Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and the state’s legislative leaders wrote that Florida couldn’t afford the “onerous regulation” of reducing man-made pollution in its waterways.

“We each ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility and hear from numerous constituents about concerns of an overbearing federal government that’s placing burdensome regulations on Florida’s families and employers,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, under Gov. Scott, the state was kneecapping its own state Department of Environmental Protection with staff and budget cuts, leading to fewer enforcement actions, while also packing the state’s water management districts with polluter-friendly board members overseeing smaller budgets.

The state refused to enforce a law that called for mandatory inspections of leaky septic tanks, and two years ago, Scott signed a bill that eased the time lines for cleaning up tainted water in Lake Okeechobee, a bill that former Gov. Bob Graham called “a purposeful effort to weaken protection and management of Florida’s water resources.”

And so here we are again. It’s another summer when Lake Okeechobee, more than one-quarter covered by algae bloom, must be pumped to the coasts to relieve the high levels caused by the summer rain.

And the short-sightedness of ignoring all that “onerous regulation” to maintain clean water standards becomes as visible as bright-green slime.

Conway posted a piece about his office’s temporary closing on the magazine’s website.

“For so many of us who love fishing, boating and Florida’s waterways, the summer of 2018 is turning out to be a heartbreaking reminder that business as usual needs to change in the state of Florida,” he wrote.

Fishing guides and water-related businesses are being “destroyed,” he wrote, because Florida’s leaders haven’t done enough to protect the state’s water resources.

“In the case of the crisis in Florida’s waterways that is harming its estuaries, these guides and businesses are not being harmed by an act of God, or a private company,” Conway wrote, “but they are being harmed by their own government.”

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