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Sarasota Thursday, May 30, 2019 1 month ago

Red tide bills see mixed results in legislature

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$3 million will be given every year for five years to Mote Marine Laboratory, but critics say more focus needs to be put on improving the county's water quality.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

After one of the worst red tide blooms in decades, Sarasota and Manatee county residents hoped to see a wide range of legislative action from Tallahassee. But after the closing of the legislative session this month, some say there is still room for improvement.

While millions of the $91.1 billion state budget was directly allocated toward red tide initiatives, some related bills were ultimately rejected.

Rep. Will Robinson, R-Bradenton, sponsored legislation to change regulations governing sewage systems, while Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, sponsored new rules regarding stormwater runoff and alternatives to spraying pesticides in water bodies.

Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, sponsored bills that would provide penalties for wastewater treatment facilities that unlawfully discharge sewage and require inspections of on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems.

All of those bills faded in the legislative session.

Gruters did find bipartisan support in a bill that would support red tide mitigation efforts.

The bill, approved in the House and Senate and awaits the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis, will provide $3 million in funding each year for the next five years to the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. The goal is to continue red tide research and develop new technology to reduce red tide impacts.

In addition to Gruters’ bill, $4.8 million will go toward the formation of The Center for Red Tide Research within the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and $10 million in funding will go to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for the implementation of technologies and short-term solutions to clean up blooms.

Solutions To Avoid Red Tide (START) CEO Sandy Gilbert said allocating some money to research is good, but it can’t be the only step.

“We don’t feel they are doing enough,” Gilbert said. “It’s fine to give some money to Mote, but you’ve got to get after the nutrients, and they’re not doing it.”

Good said the $16 million in funding was necessary to clean up the “problems that Florida’s poor environmental policies created.” However, she agreed with Gilbert.

“You cannot just continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up our environment while ignoring the policies that are creating the water quality problems that we’re experiencing,” she said.

Without clean water, Good said the county would lose its tourism appeal. The way to combat that, she said, is a multi-pronged approach focused on water quality, citing stormwater runoff, sewage systems and regulating pesticides as key factors.

While Gilbert said he was disappointed in the lack of state action, he is hopeful the counties will follow through with recent proposals.

Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines said that because red tide is naturally occurring, the county is not focused on eradicating it, and is instead focusing on what it is doing to exacerbate it.

For Hines, the answer is simple — poor water quality — and through projects like the Dona Bay stormwater project and flipping Philippi Creek homes from septic to sewer, the county is addressing the issue.

“Everyone’s saying, ‘You’ve got to do something, you’ve got to do something, you’ve got to do something,’” Hines said. “We know, but the last thing you want to do is go out and pass more laws, create more ordinances, or increase fees unless you can make a difference.”

Hines said he’s hoping the Water Quality Summit June 5 will allow the county to be transparent about what has been done and strategize about what still needs to be done.

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