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Guest opinion: Making progress on harmful algal blooms

By Staff | May 10, 2019

Congressman Francis Rooney

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to host officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to discuss the federal role in response to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). In addition to these federal agencies, Governor Ron DeSantis, FL DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein, and over 20 state and local officials gathered in Southwest Florida to discuss the serious issues related to HABs. Heavy rainfall last year created massive discharges from Lake Okeechobee exacerbating the HAB outbreaks throughout our local waterways. I am encouraged that key federal, state and local agency officials came together at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) to help our community prepare for future algae outbreaks.

Unfortunately, the current federal response to HABs is not symmetrical to the response to other natural disasters, like hurricanes. After Hurricane Andrew, Florida became a leader in responding to hurricanes and that model should be followed for the federal response to HABs. Thanks to the lessons from Andrew, buildings are now built to a strong code and pre-positioned resources are deployed as soon as the storm leaves town. We must have similar procedures for responding to HABs outbreaks.

At the roundtable this week, one major discussion was focused on the health concerns for people living near these outbreaks, many of whom are aging. The situation in Florida is unique, because many places around the country that are afflicted by toxic algae do not have HABs in such highly populated areas. The federal agencies assured us that funding is flowing into better monitoring so that local officials will have the forecasting in the future to know when major outbreaks are coming.

The CDC informed us that health research is ongoing – this is something they are taking seriously and they understand that unknown threats could have serious ramifications. Local mayors shared with the CDC how folks are having serious respiratory irritation and shortness of breath. They are working to discover the long-term consequences of exposure and I will continue to pursue answers. When they have any breakthroughs they will be shared with our local officials who will be able to service those in need.

NOAA is also doing its part by studying the impacts on wildlife. After last year, many local citizens were concerned that the bird population was down due to the outbreak. Many folks were also concerned for their family pets. I will work with NOAA to make sure we have the most up-to-date research on this issue to protect our wildlife from the impacts of toxic algae.

Further, we spoke to the federal officials regarding how vital clean water is to our real estate and tourism-based economy, and to our very existence in Southwest Florida. Governor DeSantis highlighted how seriously the state is taking this issue. Since joining Congress, I have secured $1.1 billion for Everglades-related projects and the Governor has secured $625 million in funding from the state. Governor DeSantis’ actions are speaking just as loudly as his words. Coastal communities and businesses – charter boat captains, hotels, restaurants, recreational outlets, tourist services of all types – all depend on a healthy and pristine marine environment. The state will continue to promote Florida as the premiere tourist destination in the country.

NOAA and the EPA are making great strides in early detection of HABs and we must ensure that other agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), are equally prepared. Last year, local municipalities spent over $2 million removing more than 400,000 gallons of blue-green algal blooms from local waterways. To address future response times, I introduced H.R. 414, the Protecting Local Communities from Harmful Algal Blooms Act – a bipartisan bill supported by members from across the country that will amend the Stafford Act to include Algal Blooms in the Federal definition of a natural disaster. This simple change will allow for more rapid and complete responses to HABs.

I thank all of the federal, state and local agencies for participating in our roundtable at FGCU. The participation of Governor DeSantis, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida Department of Health, Lee County Government, Collier County Government, City of Cape Coral, City of Fort Myers, Town of Fort Myers Beach, City of Sanibel, City of Bonita Springs, Village of Estero, City of Naples, City of Marco Island, Lee Memorial Health, and FGCU was vital to working towards a collaborative solution to fix our water. Their engagement on this issue is critical to our success.

– Francis Rooney is the U.S. Representative for Florida’s 19th congressional district. He serves as the Ranking Member for the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security and Trade Subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He previously served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.