Log in Subscribe

New study of Florida pollution just an expensive way to delay cleanup


Friday marks World Water Day. I feel bad about this, but I just know I’m going to be late sending out Water Day cards this year.

But we can still go caroling door-to-door. I figure we’ll start with “Black Water” by the Doobie Brothers, then segue into Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” We can finish with “Wade in the Water” by the Blind Boys of Alabama.

We should always celebrate water in Florida. We’re surrounded on three sides by the stuff. It’s a major tourist attraction, a producer of fresh seafood and beautiful sunsets, as well as something we all need to live.

And right now, water is worth a lot of money.

In the $117.5 billion budget that our fine Legislature passed a couple of weeks ago, there was an odd item that caught some people by surprise. It’s a $25 million appropriation for the Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University to conduct “a comprehensive water quality study.”

Investigative reporter Jason Garcia called that oddball appropriation “the most intriguing line item in the entire state budget.” (I’ll explain why in a minute.)

I find it helps me to envision how bizarre this is if I say the amount in the voice of Dr. Evil from “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” Put your pinkie up by your lips and say it with me: “Twenty-five MILLLL-yun dollars!”

That’s a ton of moolah, or as Cris Costello of the Sierra Club put it, “a crazy lot of money.”

I mean, $25 million is the amount of humanitarian aid the U.S. is sending to Haiti, and look how well that’s going. It’s what the Goldman Sachs CEO makes in a year (after a recent pay cut). It’s how much Under Armour pays Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to endorse their products, in spite of his recent box office flops.

I was so intrigued by this appropriation that I emailed Senate President Kathleen Passidomo’s spokeswoman, Katie Betta, to ask about it.

“As you know, in recent years the taxpayers have invested significant resources in Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s springs, the Indian River Lagoon, etc.,” Betta said. “But there are other impaired water bodies, including several of our rivers and basins, and there are several senators who are interested in taking a fresh look at options for improvements.”

So here’s the rationale for that money, she said:

“The funds will allow the Water School to conduct a comprehensive water quality study to identify and analyze impaired rivers, including upstream sources, and determine the root cause of such impairments,” Betta said.

There’s just one small problem with paying so much money to solve the mystery of Florida’s water pollution: There’s no mystery.

We know the answers just as surely as we know who killed Abe Lincoln (John Wilkes Booth, in the theater box, with a .44-caliber Derringer).

“Funny thing is that we already know what the problems are,’ Costello said.

We’ve got state and local agencies that keep track of our impaired waterways, They have already identified “the root cause” of the pollution flowing into them, causing everything from toxic algae blooms to starving manatees.

Our lakes, streams, bays, rivers, creeks, estuaries, and springs have been fouled by excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer and septic waste. To clean up, we need to stop the pollution at its source.

But the polluters tend to be major campaign donors, which means the politicians fear offending them. Instead, it’s easier to “study” the situation all over again.

I learned a long time ago that when a government agency approves a study of something that’s already been studied, it’s a way for the politicians to look like they’re doing something without doing anything.

“We already know the sources of pollution,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council. “What this appears to be … is a way to delay dealing with the largest source of pollution.” He called it “a pretty big waste of money.”

Asking for a new study now is like getting into a car crash, scraping up the pieces of your wrecked car, taking them to your mechanic, and saying, “It won’t run. Can you figure out what’s wrong?”

Still, you have to appreciate the irony involved in asking FGCU to be the mechanic here, considering its history.

Not a pleasant conversation

Eleven years ago, everyone was calling FGCU “Dunk City” because of their basketball team. The Eagles were the first 15-seed in the Sweet 16 in NCAA history. (Their dunk-drunk run at the title ended with a loss to third-seeded Florida.)

But before that, they were known as “Mildew U.” Here’s how that happened:

In the 1990s, Florida politicians wanted to build a brand new university on swampy land near Fort Myers. The land was owned by an influential campaign contributor named Ben Hill Griffin III, who was willing to donate his property to the state so he could then make a ton of money by developing all the land around it.

To create FGCU’s campus would mean destroying 75 acres of wetlands, which required a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. But the Corps was slow to say yes. Then, one day, while he was on an airboat in the Everglades, the colonel in charge of the Corps in Florida got a call on his cell phone.

The caller: One of Florida’s U.S. senators. He was not happy about the delay.

“He used some terms over the telephone that weren’t very flattering,” the colonel told me after he retired. “It wasn’t a pleasant conversation.”

The colonel said yes to the permit and the construction proceeded. Two months into the work, the site was flooded with three feet of water. FGCU was also caught three times illegally pumping floodwater off its campus into adjacent swamps – hence the Mildew U nickname.

Wetlands, of course, protect against floods and serve as natural filters for polluted water. Destroy a wetland by filling it in or paving it over and you’ll start to see unfiltered stormwater runoff pouring pollutants into the nearest waterway.

Something tells me, though, that any solutions FGCU comes up with for Florida’s water pollution problems will not call for tearing down structures that were built atop wetlands the way FGCU was.

Where Noah landed

 I don’t mean to dunk on Dunk City, but there’s another problem with handing the folks at FGCU all that cashola and expecting an unbiased report on Florida’s pollution woes: They gave Noah a place to land.

No, not the big boat-builder from the Bible. I mean Noah Valenstein, former boss of the Florida Department of Environmental Disasters — er, I mean, Protection.

Valenstein, a genial bureaucrat always willing to bow to political realities, first became the head of the DEP under former Gov. Rick “I’m Endorsing Trump For President, But I’d Never Lend Him A Dime” Scott.

While he was running the state, Scott insisted the DEP treat polluters like customers who were always right. Valenstein was one of the few DEP employees Scott didn’t try to lay off.

Then, when Scott used his fortune to spend his way into the U.S. Senate, Valenstein became DEP secretary for Gov. Ron “Fly Those Haitian Refugees Up to Martha’s Vineyard” DeSantis.

Under both governors, he did such a thorough job protecting our environment that, by 2022, Florida was ranked first in the nation for the most polluted lakes and second for polluted estuaries.  Wade in that water? No thank you!

Among other things, Valenstein was in charge of DeSantis’ prime environmental initiative: combating the plague of blue-green algae. It didn’t turn out so well.

DeSantis appointed a team of scientists to recommend how to battle the algae. Their recommendations called for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural and lawn fertilizer as well as leaky septic tanks, increasing water testing around pollution hotspots, and revamping the state’s flagship pollution-reduction program, which doesn’t work.

The Legislature passed only 13 percent of the recommendations, tossing the rest in the dumpster. Their “Clean Waterways Act” didn’t require much cleaning at all.

For instance, farmers didn’t even have to monitor or reduce the pollution running off their land. Instead, the law called for voluntary cleanup, which is tantamount to no cleanup at all.

DeSantis and Valenstein went along with this farce, declaring victory.

Meanwhile, starting in 2020, the state has been forking over millions of dollars to an Israeli company called BlueGreen Water Technologies to dump a peroxide-based product called Lake Guard Oxy on the algae blooms. It dissipates the blooms for a while, but then they come back, because the state hasn’t stopped the pollution that fuels the blooms.

Valenstein quit in 2021, and guess who handed him a job? FGCU’s Water School. Water School director Greg Tolley told the Fort Myers News-Press that Valenstein would help FGCU with “policy decisions.”

I don’t think a Water School study of Florida’s water woes will point the finger at the agency once led by a current Water School employee. To do so might strike them as a bad policy decision.

When I contacted the university to ask how they’d go about doing this study, a spokeswoman told me they couldn’t comment on it before DeSantis decided whether to veto the money. But I don’t think he will. I don’t think he can.

An “enhanced understanding”

In case you’re wondering who came up with the brilliant idea to fork over so much of the taxpayer’s money for this pointless study, the answer appears to be Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Reinventing the Wheel.

If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was involved in a widely publicized “ghost candidate” scandal in Seminole County. He wasn’t charged, but it resulted in him stepping down from his $115,000-a-year job as CEO of the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce.

Brodeur is such a friend to Florida’s environment that he won a 2021 award from the Florida Home Builders Association. He’s also such a pro at slowing things down you could call him Dr. Delay. For instance, he was behind that one-year pause in local governments banning the summer sale of fertilizers

Betta sent me a Senate form that Brodeur filled out in January to request the appropriation. The form said the $25 million study would “result in an enhanced understanding of the causes of impaired water bodies and the upstream sources.”

I think it’s fair to say that the request offers “an enhanced understanding” of where Brodeur stands on the urgency of cracking down on the state’s polluters.

Give the senators credit for one thing, though. One of the reasons reporter Jason Garcia identified this appropriation as “the most intriguing line item” is because it’s “designed to be veto proof:”

Even if DeSantis were to strike that $25 million from the budget, he wrote, “the study would still go forward because it’s also a part of Senate Bill 1638. And that’s a tougher bill to veto, because it also contains funding for a wide array of important and popular environmental and resiliency projects.”

The big O

SB 1638 was sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, a  St. Augustine developer, who said he had filed it at the request of Passidomo.

That bill got some news coverage during the legislative session, but the reports mostly focused on the fact that it calls for using the state’s expected share of gambling money from the Seminole Tribe’s sports-betting app to buy environmentally sensitive land. In effect, it’s a big bet that the U.S. Supreme Court will approve the state’s deal with the Seminoles.

There was scant mention of the water quality study that must, according to a staff bill analysis, “include the collection and consolidation of data regarding water quality to identify potential regional projects, including stormwater, hydrologic improvements, and innovative technologies, which reduce nutrient loading to water bodies.”

Hutson’s bill specifically mentions one waterway to be studied: Lake Okeechobee, the second largest lake in the United States. That lake may be the most studied water body in Florida.

“Why study something that’s already been studied to death?” asked Jacqui Thurlow-Lippsch, a clean water advocate who served on the South Florida Water Management District board until she said something Passidomo didn’t like.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida water folks have spent decades monkeying around with the lake. They’ve done everything but drain it dry to learn how it works. Both just held extensive discussions over how best to operate it.

“Why do we need to pay FGCU to study it when we just went through that?” asked Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades.

Meanwhile, to quote the Doobies, folks on both coasts are dealing with a lot of black water coming from Lake O right now.

That’s because the folks in charge of Lake Okeechobee are dumping billions of gallons to the east and west as fast as possible. They want to avoid Lake O becoming so full it bursts its bounds and we see a replay of the deadly 1928 deluge described by Zora Neale Hurston in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” as an attack by a “monstropolous beast.”

But the lake water turns the coastal areas a dark color. Worse, it tends to carry blue-green algae toxins from the lake, spreading them into coastal areas that would otherwise be clear. People who live there remember the “toxic summers” of 2016 and 2018.

If the Legislature really has $25 million to spend, Samples said, a better use for it would be to build a way to send that water southward so it doesn’t mess up the coasts. Thurlow-Lippisch pointed out that as far back as 1955, an Army study called for finding a way to discharge lake water to the south, but no one has followed through.

See, that would require doing something instead of doing nothing. I’m surprised no one has called for a study of the politicians’ inclination to call for a study of something that’s already been studied. It’s studies all the way down!

Anyway, here’s hoping you have a wonderful World Water Day on Friday. I’d invite our legislators to go caroling with us, but I’m afraid they’d say that instead of singing we have to study the song selection first. That sounds pretty dry.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


1 comment on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.

  • Cat L

    Developers are deciding what environmental conditions we experience... I'm sure that will go well....

    Monday, March 25 Report this