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New study shows costs to SWFL of toxic water but congressional bills to help remain neglected




by David Silverberg


While a new study puts a price tag on the cost of harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Southwest Florida, two bills meant to help protect the region’s clean water are languishing in the US House of Representatives, ignored and forgotten by the member of Congress who sponsored them: Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.).


One bill is the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act (House Resolution (HR) 325). It would ensure that federal agencies monitor potentially HABs even if there’s a government shutdown. The other is the Combat Harmful Algal Blooms Act (HR 1008), which would make a slight change to existing legislation so that HABs are treated like other natural disasters and victims receive federal benefits.


The importance of the legislation was highlighted by the release last Tuesday, Jan. 16, of a new report, Impacts of Water Quality on the Southwest Florida Economy, a 177-page study sponsored by the local environmental organizations Captains for Clean Water, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, and the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation.


The report.


The value of water


Last year the organizations commissioned the outside consulting firm Greene Economics LLC, Ridgefield, Wash., to do an extensive and thorough analysis of the precise value of clean water to Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties.


The study found that the value of clean water is massive: it provides $18 billion in value to the coastal economy of the three counties.


The study found that of all the threats to that water like hurricanes, saltwater intrusion, and wastewater pollution, the most costly and dangerous were HABs like red tide and blue-green algae. A major HAB has the potential to cost Southwest Florida $5.2 billion in coastal economic losses, $17.8 billion in property value losses, and $460 million in commercial and recreational fishing losses. It might take out 43,000 jobs in the coastal economy, according to the study.


In 2018 an extensive and persistent HAB (what The Paradise Progressive dubbed “the Big Bloom”) of both red tide in the Gulf of Mexico and blue-green algae in the Caloosahatchee River and along the interior shoreline, tormented Southwest Florida.


The Big Bloom led to a variety of measures meant to cope with future blooms. Then-Rep. Francis Rooney, who represented the 19th Congressional District, the coastal area from Cape Coral to Marco Island, from 2017 to 2021, brought together all the federal agencies and local governments dealing with HABs to fashion a coordinated response.


As a result of that conference, held on May 7, 2019, Rooney drafted the two bills and introduced them in 2019. (For a fuller discussion of the Big Bloom and the politics of HABs, see the May 26, 2021 article, “Water warning: The politics of red tide, algae and lessons from the Big Bloom.”)


During Rooney’s tenure, the bills never made it out of committee.


When Rooney’s successor, Byron Donalds, took office in 2021, the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act was the first bill he introduced, on March 17 of that year. The Combat Harmful Algal Blooms Act followed on the 24th.


However, like all other legislation he has introduced, Donalds did nothing to advance his own bills. The bills did not move past the introductory phase in the 117th Congress.


Following his re-election in 2022, Donalds reintroduced the bills in the 118th Congress. However, as before, Donalds did nothing to advance them and to date they have not even received subcommittee consideration, the first step toward passage.


Instead, Donalds has concentrated his efforts on out of state political campaigning for former President Donald Trump, attacking the current administration and pursuing his own political ambitions. According to the official congressional database, Congress.gov, Donalds has introduced 63 bills in the current Congress and advanced none of them.


Analysis: The importance of clean water


Water is essential to human existence in the otherwise swampy and hostile tropical environment of Southwest Florida—but not just any water. It must be clean water, consumable by humans, beneficial to animals and nourishing to plants.


Legislation cannot stop HABs but these two pieces of legislation are at least steps that will help Southwest Florida monitor potential blooms and then, when they occur, help businesses and individuals get the same kind of relief and support they would receive in the event of a disaster like a hurricane.


HR 325, the Harmful Algal Bloom Essential Forecasting Act, is especially important given the continuing threat of government shutdowns. Once a rare and very damaging occurrence due to partisan brinksmanship, the US federal government now faces a shutdown every other month as Make America Great Again (MAGA) representatives refuse to vote for essential appropriations.


Ironically, Donalds, a member of the extreme MAGA House Freedom Caucus, has consistently voted for shutdowns by vocally opposing critical appropriations. Of all the members of Congress he should be actively pushing this measure to protect Southwest Florida from the consequences of his own votes.


What is more, it’s not just Southwest Florida that faces the damages of HABs; they’re occurring around the country—indeed, the world—with increasing frequency and intensity given the increase in pollution and changes in climate.


The need to deal with them transcends political party or region. In the United States this is attested to by the fact that HR 325’s only co-sponsor in this Congress, Rep. Elissa Slotkin, (D-7-Mich.), is from Michigan, another state dealing with persistent HABs. Slotkin’s district is centered in the city of Lansing and Lake Lansing has suffered from HABs.


Slotkin is a co-sponsor of another bill, the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act (HR 132) that does the same thing as HR 1008. This bill, introduced by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-16-Fla.) on Jan. 9, 2023, has six cosponsors; one other Republican, Rep. Mike Kelly, (R-16-Pa.), and five Democrats, three of them Floridians: Reps. Darren Soto, (D-9-Fla.), Kathy Castor (D-14-Fla.) and Frederica Wilson (D-24-Fla.). (The other Democratic co-sponsor is Rep. Hillary Scholten, (D-3-Mich.)).


Interestingly enough, Donalds is not a HR 132 co-sponsor. (The Paradise Progressive reached out to Donalds’ office by e-mail with a question and a request for comment on his bills but received no reply or acknowledgment as of post time.)


Commentary: Paying attention at home


Legislation that helps Florida cope with HABs is vital to the state and region. The Impact report makes clear the specific dollar cost of these events to the region’s economy, industry, quality of life and jobs.


Passage of these measures would benefit the region, at least ensuring that people get some advance warning of developing HABs despite even a government shutdown. If a HAB occurs, people would be entitled to the same government benefits they would get if struck by a hurricane.


But for Southwest Florida to get the aid of this legislation these bills have to be nurtured, advanced and developed by the congressman who introduced them. They have to be pushed through the subcommittee and committee process and then presented to the entire House. That takes work, attention, effort and, most of all, concern for the district and its people.


So far that hasn’t been shown by Donalds on these matters.


Perhaps it’s time for Donalds to worry a little less about New Hampshire, Hunter Biden and Donald Trump and a little bit more about Lee and Collier counties and show that he can actually do the job he was elected to do.


Special to Big Mouth Media from the Paradise Progressive. Originally published on January 22, 2024.

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