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John Rehill
Summer Slime: A Slippery Slope

Florida's waterways are being wrapped in a bright green blanket of summer slime, and what's underneath isn't pretty. It is becoming so common in Florida, we now call this time of year "slime season." You won't see it on a postcard or in some glossy brochure, and it probably didn't make this year's calendar, but come-on-down: it's in the lakes and rivers for everyone to see.

This isn't a case of life imitating art. It doesn't have anything to do with the green slime in the Dungeon and Dragons fantasy role playing game. There, the green slime monster resembles a bright, sticky, smelly, wet moss that grows on nearly everything, more similar to a plant than an animal. Well, maybe there is a lot of resemblance, but one thing is for sure, this is no game, and what is at stake is so costly to the state of Florida that legislators might have to recalibrate their calculators.

Much of Florida's 11,000 miles of waterways and 7,700 lakes are in deep peril. Its rivers, marshes, wetlands and springs - all the way to its estuaries and beaches - are suffering from nutrient pollution (phosphorus and nitrogen), primarily from phosphate mining and agriculture. These industries make the soup that makes the green slime, and they methodically mask the consequences Florida residents are forced to live with.

Contaminated runoff is the primary source of pollution for 13 percent of rivers, 18 percent of lakes, 32 percent of estuaries, and 55 percent of ocean shorelines across the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of impaired waters.

In Manatee County, they grow tomatoes, many thousands of acres of them, and 90 percent of those grown are shipped out of the county and state. That makes a dozen families, a few chemical companies, some trucking firms and shippers, very prosperous. But the tankers full of pesticides and herbicides, the truck loads of fertilizer and plastic ground cover, applied to these crops, don't leave with these to-be-exported tomatoes. It all stays here in the state, on the land and in the rivers.

High levels of phosphorus and nitrogen that spur these toxic algae outbreaks, are contaminating Florida's primary water supply. The chronic residual use of pesticides and herbicides that continue to leach into groundwater, endanger Florida's only other drinking water source. Ecologist and Environmental scientist agree, serious consequences are inevitable without carefully monitored regulations. Currently, Florida legislators have been going the other way, and allowing more corporations to self regulate. 

Florida Governor Rick Scott has been in an anti-regulation mood since his election. He and his team see regulations as a road block to any and all commerce. The governor has pledged to examine all regulations and eliminate any that he feels can deprive the state of new jobs. Scott's budget cuts have terminated more jobs than any of his policies have created. The numbers of jobs, in the industries that seek fewer regulations, are dwarfed by the industries that rely on a pristine healthy environment, like tourism. 

With over 70 million visitors a year, spending almost $60 billion, tourism is by far Florida's most vital industry. The state's 1,200 miles of coastline entertain 663 miles of  beaches. Should anything endanger this lifeline, all of Florida's 18 million residents would feel the effects. And it is not just the beaches that bring visitors to the Sunshine State, its lakes and rivers are a large draw too. Nor is it only visitors that use the beaches, most of Florida's residents are here because of the water. 

Last August, Lee County was forced to close four of its Ft Myers area beaches due to excessive bacteria, and already this year, another outbreak of "summer slime" has the Lee County Health Department issuing warnings to the public to avoid waterways in the county. Lee County isn't alone; over 1,000 miles of rivers, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 miles of Florida estuaries are contaminated with commercial sewage, fertilizers and manure. On an average, 100 of Florida's beaches experience temporary closures annually due to these conditions.

Monica Reimer, an Earthjustice attorney, says she won't swim in Florida waterways anymore because she knows too much. "People need to learn that they can't really use the water like they used to." Reimer, a Florida native, said. "This isn't normal. This isn't natural. This is the result of lax regulations and over-fertilization."

Last December, Sierra Club reported that Earthjustice filed a legal challenge against Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) because the state agency is failing to protect residents and tourist from nauseating -- and dangerous -- toxic algae outbreaks. David Guest, Earthjustice's managing attorney said, "These outbreaks can cause rashes, breathing problems, stomach disorders, and worse. Health authorities have had to shut down drinking water plants, beaches and swimming areas." He added, “Toxic algae outbreaks are a public health threat and they also affect Florida’s bottom line.”

Sierra Club assembled an interactive map of Florida's slimed waterways, which stretch from South Florida to the Panhandle. There are nearly 100 photos from all over the state, of rivers, lakes and beaches, that display the extent of the problem. In support of the Earthjustice lawsuit, more than 17,000 people have sent President Obama a letter supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits to combat the green slime. Environmentalists believe the standards adopted by the FDOP, that Earthjustice is challenging, have been ineffective.

The toxic environment contributing to the "green summer slime" situation did not happen over night, nor will it go away without action. Should that action come tomorrow, it would still take considerable time to reverse current conditions. SW Florida's economy suffered from what happened to the tourism industry when just a scare threatened to compromise its beaches during the oil spill. Summer slime could be every bit as damaging to Florida's economy as was the BP disaster. There, millions upon millions of dollars was spent to convince the public, that the water was fine and not to worry. There is not a river or beach in the state that is protected or immune to the threats of summer slime.

Today, there are tourists that are not going to revisit the beaches and waterways they visited last year, or the year before that, because of their experience with summer slime. The problem is growing. What if it is 200 beaches, this or next year, that turn away tourist? Will legislators then take the problem seriously?  Moreover, how will they know, and to what extent will they go to protect their agenda?

Florida is also the nation's leading watersport state. Should government officials test the tolerance of those who come here for the beautiful rivers, lakes and beaches? Their condition is increasingly deteriorating and will continue to do so without a focused effort to correct the problem. The big question is which green will win out.  Will legislators quit taking money from the phosphate miners, industrial farmers and power companies that pay them to look the other way and take a look at the murky water? Not on their own, they won't.

John Rehill is a writer with The Bradenton Times.

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by Dr. Radut.