Florida's algae problems take top billing in race for governor

Putnam's ties to sugar industry could cost him in Tuesday primary

Florida’s red tide crisis and other algae problems have emerged as the environmental issue of the 2018 election primaries, with top gubernatorial candidates pointing to the 2017 water resources bill as the foundation to protect the state’s waterways from future contamination.

Democratic state Sen. Linda Stewart, a member of the state environmental committee, said candidates in both parties need to acknowledge the environmental challenge to protect the waterways.

“We need assurances from those who are running for office that they will pay attention to what is going on,” Stewart said.

[READ: What Florida is doing to improve the state's dirty water situation]

Stewart traveled to the St. Lucie River to take samples from the surface water. The lab results showed chlorophyll levels to be 400 percent above the accepted norm with turbidity at 1000 percent above  average.

“Our sample was minimal,” Stewart said. “We are polluting the water and that needs to be solved. When they say it’s bad, it’s worse than bad.”

That mandate appears to be resonating with the men and women in the race for governor.

GOP candidate Ron DeSantis has slammed the sugar industry for its role in contaminating Lake Okeechobee and has made the environment a star of his latest political ads.

“This really affects Florida’s economic vitality in the future,” DeSantis told reporters. “It affects our quality of life so it’s something we need to tend to.”

His leading Republican primary opponent, Adam Putnam, has sidestepped the Big Sugar issue, focusing instead on developing scientific remedies.

“We need to continue long-term research,” Putnam said. “So we can mitigate the problem in the future.” 

Political experts say the sugar industry’s contributions to his campaign could cost him votes in South Florida, an area heavily impacted by the red tide algae blooms. 

University of Central Florida professor and News 6 political expert Jim Clark said Democrats need to force the sugar industry to make concessions, something “the current administration hasn’t done.”

Democratic frontrunner Gwen Graham has been critical of past administrations that in her view, allowed the environment to become a low priority.

"This is all because of 20 years of not taking care of our environment. When we are governor, our environment is going to be a priority again," Graham said.

Her closest rival, former Miami Beach mayor Phillip Levine, told reporters he wants the water management boards to reflect the scientific community, not political pals.

“It’s going to take the Democrats standing up to Big Sugar to make some of these things happen," Clark said. "It will be interesting to see how much clout Big Sugar has if the Democrats take over the governorship.”


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