Reel Time: The elephant in the bay

Reel Time: The elephant in the bay
The sun rose last summer on a sublime scene marred by dead fish, grass and the foul odor of a dead and dying bay. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

It’s not with any pleasure that I sit down and write an outdoors column on water quality issues and red tide at one of my favorite times of the year. I’d rather be spending this time talking about tarpon, snook, redfish, trout and the plethora of other fish that swim area waters. Unfortunately, there’s an elephant in the bay.

Although area waters are clear again and the red tide is currently absent, we don’t seem to have made any significant progress in addressing the problems that plagued us last year and pose a threat into the future. It’s hard to fathom that after last year’s unprecedented killing field event that featured daily images of dead fish, dolphin, turtles and manatees, policymakers failed to act to address the core problem.

In fact, the Florida legislative session that just ended was characterized as “a disaster for our environment,” by the public interest group Florida Conservation Voters. If it takes numbers to convince you, consider the bottom line. This year’s environmental funding is only 0.003 percent more than last year.

This isn’t a red vs. blue issue as major initiatives (blocked by leadership) were advanced from both sides of the aisle. Three of these blocked bills were championed by local politicians Rep. Will Robinson (R-Bradenton), Rep. Margaret Good (D-Sarasota) and Sen. Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota).

If you live on or anywhere near the Gulf and are a homeowner, business owner or tourist, last summer’s explosion of red tide and blue-green algae was a blunt wake-up call. At risk is everything we value including our marine environment, quality of life and businesses. Florida Conservation Voters reminds us, “Democracy isn’t a spectator sport; it requires participation to work.” It also cautions that “Legislators regularly sponsor bills that seek to limit, restrict or hinder many of the principals we hold most dear.”

A case in point: This past session a bill was passed by both chambers that would make it much more difficult for voters to exercise their constitutional right to pass a citizen’s imitative. I don’t know about you, but I want to have the ability to pass a ballot initiative if necessary to protect my property, my business and the marine environment that has sustained me for the past three decades.

If there’s a bright spot in this bleak session, it’s another record year for Everglades funding and other associated water quality projects up and down the coasts, funding made possible by the voter-approved 2014 Water and Land Conservation Amendment (Amendment One). Unfortunately, the Legislature once again severely underfunded the state’s most important suite of land conservation programs, commonly referred to as Florida Forever. The leadership decided to spend only $33 million on a program that had received $300 million for decades.

We as citizens of a barrier island surrounded by water cannot afford to let this become yet another out of sight, out of mind event. Legislators are touting the $3 million a year that was allocated to study red tide for the next five years. Those familiar with the causes and effects know that the real answer is to limit the nutrients that fuel severe and extended blooms.

Unfortunately, interests opposed to addressing the root cause because of financial impacts continue to sway legislators. Meanwhile, the blooms are more frequent and severe and will cost us far more in the future for our failure to act now in any significant way. While the bay and Gulf have a remarkable ability to recover, my three-plus decades point to a diminishing resource that’s less resilient and taking much longer to recover than in the past.

The bottom line is that we have too much at stake to hope for a good result. We all need to lobby our legislators to resist the special interests for which the bottom line is today and next year. They were elected to serve the residents who live, work and raise families here.  There’s an elephant in the bay, one we can’t wish away. Let’s all work together to protect this special place we call home.

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