Former presidential candidate and current Sen. Marco Rubio (R) was in his home state of Florida over the holiday weekend, where he took the opportunity to check out algal blooms that have caused a state of emergency in two counties.
Polluted fresh water from Lake Okeechobee has caused massive, toxic algal blooms that are threatening the region’s health and economy. But Rubio’s response to the crisis largely failed to acknowledge why it is happening — and even included a suggestion that could be disastrous.
“It’s a complex and painful thing to talk about and it’s a very difficult thing to deal with because it doesn’t have one singular cause and it doesn’t have one singular project that solves it all,” Rubio said in a statement, urging the lake’s managers to stop releasing water into the estuaries just north of West Palm Beach.
It’s true that the problem is complicated. The algae that is stifling marine life and the coastal economy flourishes in fertilizer runoff and warm waters. The resulting blooms can be toxic and are certainly unpleasant, smelly, and gross. But this isn’t just about getting rid of 2016’s coastal algal blooms. This is also about the ongoing pollution of the lake, the paving-over of the Everglades, a lack of water storage, a risk of levee breach, and Florida’s seasonal cycles of rain and drought.
His record in Florida is tirelessly working on behalf of Big Sugar to lower water quality standards
And Rubio is flat-out ignoring two major forces behind Florida’s water woes: Pollution from agriculture and climate change.
Big Ag is a big problem
“We have fought for years to try to get agricultural pollution treated,” Alisa Coe, an attorney with Earthjustice, told ThinkProgress. “It is not being dealt with, and now we are seeing the consequences.”
Earthjustice has fought for years to clean up the lake. Sugar is a major industry in central Florida, and runoff from sugar fields has been tied to Lake Okeechobee’s pollution. In addition, the sugar industry has opposed a popular plan to buy back areas of wetlands south of the lake, which would allow for more flexible runoff plans. Rubio, incidentally, has received “multiple, six-figure” donations from the sugar industry, according to Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades.
“His record in Florida is tirelessly working on behalf of Big Sugar to lower water quality standards,” Farago wrote this week. “In 2003, Rubio was a whip for Gov. Jeb Bush on a bill lowering Everglades water quality standards crowd-swarmed by sugar lobbyists. That new law was successfully challenged by Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe in federal court but caused a decade delay in water quality improvements, setting up today’s disaster.”
Sugar isn’t the only problem. The beef industry also pollutes the water, as does urban runoff, but many experts say that the sugar industry is the biggest contributor.
Confusingly, Rubio seems to think that multiple contributors mean responsibility is too diffuse for action.
“If I believe[d] that the sugar industry was the only contributor to this then we would do everything possible to address that immediately, but there are multiple contributors to this and it’s not just agriculture,” Rubio said.
There is a clear parallel here with Rubio’s approach to climate change.
Water pollution is similar to carbon pollution: It has a cost
Rubio has gone on record saying that addressing climate change, which he does not believe is caused by human activity, would destroy the U.S. economy. He has also said that it is fruitless for the United States to act, because it is not the only country contributing to climate change.
“Every time someone comes to see me and asks me to support one of these [climate change mitigation] policies, I always ask them, ‘Can you tell me how many inches of sea rise it will prevent?’ They say it won’t, but it will set an example for the rest of the world,” Rubio said in March. “Then when you ask economists, it’s clear that the cost of these policies will fall on American businesses.”
But as Karl Haven, director of the Florida Sea Grant College Program dryly put it:
Climate change is expected to result in increased temperatures of nearshore ocean water, and this could lead to increased growth of harmful microorganisms. These include algae that form noxious or toxic blooms, including red tides, and bacteria and other pathogens. This situation could have negative consequences in regard to human health and also Florida’s ocean-related economy.
The costs of not addressing climate change are expected to be much, much higher than the costs of cleaning up our act.
This area of South Florida is a perfect example.
Florida’s coast and the Everglades are low-lying regions that are massively at risk from sea level rise — another effect of climate change that puts even more stress on the state’s water storage systems.
How The 2016 Election Could Literally Put South Florida UnderwaterClimate by CREDIT: AP PHOTO/LYNNE SLADKY When it comes to fighting sea level rise in South Florida, Jennifer Jurado has…thinkprogress.orgIn addition to warming and rising oceans, climate change has been tied to more extreme weather — and that means rainier rainy seasons here. More rain puts more pressure on the Lake Okeechobee levee. This spring, that prompted the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the levee, to release more than a billion gallons of water from the lake every day between February and the end of June. (As POLITICO reporter Mike Grundwald pointed out in this stellar tweetstorm, the levee actually did break in 1928. Two thousand people died. Today, more than 40,000 people would be affected if the levee broke.)
A water quantity problem, not just a water quality problem
But, amazingly, Rubio has asked the Army Corps of Engineers to stop releasing water from the lake.
“I don’t know that we’re in a position where that makes a lot of sense,” John Campbell, a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers, told ThinkProgress.
The surface of the lake is currently 14.9 feet above sea level. This elevation — which is how the Army Corps measures lake height — is worryingly high for this time of year. Florida’s water management issues are complicated by its cycle of dry seasons in the winter, and wet seasons in the summer and fall. A tropical storm system can add three feet of elevation to Lake Okeechobee in just a few weeks.
“We’re one storm away from being at 18 feet,” Campbell said.
After Rubio’s request, on Friday, the Army Corps reduced flows to the east, where the algae has run amok, but that has made the lake rise.
Campbell called the blooms “disastrous,” but prudent water management called for continuing to drain the lake.
Toxic Algae Will Thrive As The Planet WarmsClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Thiessen, File Last summer, one of the largest toxic algal blooms in recorded history…thinkprogress.org“People are currently being impacted, and we are sensitive to that,” he said. “Our concern is the lake — it’s wet season, we’re early in wet season… and the lake can take on water a lot faster than we can get it out.”
An elevation of 17 or 17.5 feet is considered dangerous for Lake Okeechobee, where the levee is rated in the Army Corps’ highest risk category. When the water has risen that high in the past, emergency measures have been taken to fix eroding earth beneath the levee or cavities in the structure itself. Despite $800 million worth of repairs over the past decade, the Army Corps has fixed only 22 miles — “only” 22 miles — of the 143 miles of levee that surround the lake. Some of the culverts that have been fixed date back to the 1930s, Campbell said.
“It is an extensive structure,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to digest how big of an undertaking [repairing the dyke] is.”
Rubio has worked hard to get additional funding into the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Project, but he is ignoring the causes of the pollution and water management. Instead, he wants a state of emergency declared.
“I hope the president will have an emergency declaration because that will open up the full portfolio of aid that the federal government can provide local businesses and communities that are being impacted by this,” Rubio said. (Presidents make emergency declarations at the request of a state governor. That request has not happened yet.)
But in the meantime, Rubio has directly impeded federal action on climate change, which threatens not only the Lake Okeechobee region, but the entire state. Rubio has opposed all but one piece of climate legislation since he arrived in office, according to the League of Conservation Voters.
So the real question is: Why do politicians keep opting to bail out polluters? If agricultural pollution and greenhouse gas pollution are putting Floridians and the Everglades at risk, why doesn’t Rubio go after them? Why is it all right for the government to spend a billion dollars on helping to fix the lake’s runoff issues, while state and local partners will kick in another billion dollars, but it’s not all right to cut off subsidies to the same entities that are causing these problems?
Rubio called the algal blooms “beyond just an ecological disaster; it’s an economic disaster with long-term implications. I’m in favor of answers. I want this problem to be solved.”
But solving South Florida’s water problem will take more than tough talk against the federal government. It will take facing the causes head on.