Why Aren’t There More Clean Water Champions?

At last month’s House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee hearing on the Water Resources Development Act, two voices stood out in a crowded room to speak for the decades-long decline of South Florida’s waterways.

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Congressman Brian Mast, a Republican from the Treasure Coast’s District 18, doggedly pressed the Army Corps of Engineers about operational decisions that risked human health, until a stark admission was added to the public record for the first time. The willful and knowing poisoning of communities was hardly a shock to residents impacted by Lake Okeechobee discharges, but the admission, straight from the mouth of the Corps, set a new precedent in Florida’s fight for clean water.

Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsal-Powell, a Democrat representing the state’s iconic Florida Keys and portions of Miami, expressed outrage at the persistence of a crisis that’s left South Florida with contaminated water, swaths of dead seagrass, and multi-tiered negative effects on the livelihoods of Floridians. While raising the deteriorating status of Florida Bay in of her own southern district, which suffers from a chronic lack of freshwater flow from Lake Okeechobee, she called the release of toxic water to the northern estuaries unacceptable, and begged for a solution that considered the entire interconnected system.

The direct manner they took in demanding answers and action from the Corps demonstrates true constituent representation at the federal level and leadership that Florida’s water crisis has been sorely lacking. Last summer’s nightmare combination of cyanobacteria and red tide tipped the scales of severity towards a desperate and immediate need for solutions--which begs the question: Why aren’t there more clean water champions?

A lawsuit filed by U.S. Sugar that pushes back against changes to lake management that would help to limit harmful discharges to the coasts, helps to answer this question. The complaint, which claims concern for the human environment but makes no mention of toxic algae, demonstrates a familiar profits-over-people control tactic and displays an all too real example of how the sugar industry has played an outsized role in Florida politics for decades. Thanks to an unmatched financial ability to fund willing enablers on both sides of the aisle and a confrontational approach when its regime is threatened, the industry has established a formidable status quo. It takes guts to stand up to that, and both parties are guilty of inspiring too few champions to take them on.

A New Era

Political courage is paying off. In direct response to mounting evidence linking cyanobacteria toxins to short- and long-term health risks, and thanks to insistent pressure by the people of Florida and a few courageous lawmakers--led by Congressman Mast--the Army Corps is changing the way they manage Lake Okeechobee specifically to prevent harmful health effects from toxic algae. This isn’t an arbitrary triumph in a decades-long battle. This is a real, measurable sea change that has the ability to bring relief--right now--to communities that suffer year after year.

In the world of clean water politics, brave and effective legislators have been few and far between. The environment, economy, and public health in this state is at a crossroads that needs committed, bipartisan support. The future of Florida is dependent on more leaders from both sides of the aisle stepping up.

We’ll be watching.

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