Harmful algal bloom disrupts Southwest Florida economy
In Southwest Florida, we know that our economy is our environment. The region’s charm and prosperity are deeply rooted in our coastal and inland waters. When water quality is compromised, it is not just an environmental issue, but a fundamental issue for every aspect of life in Southwest Florida – tourism, employment, recreation, quality of life, property values, human health and more. .
Simply put, the economic and ecological well-being of our region depends on the health of our waters.
Yet despite near-universal recognition that our water powers our economy, our water quality continues to decline. Harmful algal blooms (HABs), such as blue-green algae and red tides, continue to devastate our waters. Severe events such as 2018’s blooms have disrupted local industry, damaged the natural beauty of beaches and rivers, and raised concerns about the region’s ecological future.
Our region experiences smaller but still high-impact negative HAB events every year. These blooms may not make national news every time they occur, but each time they occur they harm our environment, damage our economy and weaken our ecosystem’s ability to rebound. These events are a stark reminder of the fragile balance between nature and human activity. As we look at the current state of Lake Okeechobee with water depths exceeding 16 feet, the potential for large-scale discharges – and the consequent – large-scale harmful sewage discharges that devastate the Caloosahatchee and our coastal ecology and economy .
So, if we clearly understand the negative impacts of red tide contamination and degraded water quality on our communities, health, and economy, why are we still dealing with these issues?
Improving water quality is a bit like solving a Rubik’s Cube. All parties must line up to solve this puzzle. This includes the need to accelerate restoration projects like the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), reduce pollution at the source and hold polluting entities accountable. It also requires smarter ways to manage growth, including developing updated statewide stormwater standards and minimizing the loss of valuable wetlands that play a critical role in storing and processing fresh water.
Allowing unnecessary destruction of wetlands in proposed large-scale new developments, such as the Kingston development in east Lee County and the Belmar project in east Collier, are examples of current unsustainable forms of regional development that undermine our natural infrastructure that supports clean water.
To address this growing problem, our organizations collectively hired Green Economics to conduct a thorough analysis of the economic impacts of water quality degradation. This critical research translates ecological impacts into tangible economic data, providing a clearer view of the stakes involved.
As expected, the study’s results paint a grim picture of the potential economic impacts of poor water quality. A repeat of the catastrophic events of June 2005 and 2018 could lead to significant declines in key economic sectors. An event like the one we saw in 2018 would spell disaster for our commercial and recreational fisheries, potentially costing more than $460 million. In addition, the region could face a significant drop in property values of $17.8 billion, with consequent tax losses exceeding $60 million.
The report further stated that more than 43,000 people may face unemployment. Of course, not everything related to water quality can be quantified—consider the emotional toll a person loses his job due to the effects of HABs. Or the disappointment of needing to avoid the beach or planning a kayak trip on the local river because of dead fish or toxic algae.
Policymakers should consider the real economic costs of HABs when setting budget priorities and balancing different interests.
The findings of this report are horrific and must serve as a wake-up call to the public, elected officials, and community leaders. More must be done holistically to address the known causes of the red tide problem and return our region to more sustainable economic, ecological and community resiliency.
Everyone who loves Southwest Florida should be frustrated, inspired, and mobilized—we can no longer wait for meaningful action to clean up and protect our precious water resources. We invite the public to view a copy of the executive summary or download the full report and visit our organization’s website to learn more about how each of us can be part of the solution.
Capt. Daniel Andrews is executive director and co-founder of Captains for Clean Water (captainsforcleanwater.org)); James Evans is CEO of Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (sccf.org); Rob Moher is president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (conservancy.org))