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Algae blooms, toll woes and beach battles -- Florida's fouled up summer

Posted July 21, 2018 12:06 p.m. EDT

A Tampa Bay Times Editorial

July in Florida. The height of summer tourist season. Rental cars clog the highways and tourists crowd the beaches, motels and all-you-can-eat shrimp joints. Many of our neighbors are off to North Carolina or somewhere cooler. So it's an awfully inconvenient time for basic stuff to go haywire. But glance across the state and things are not exactly humming along. The water is turning green, the toll system has been down for over a month and sheriff's deputies are kicking people off beaches. At least there's no election coming up to bungle. Oh, wait …

Toxic algae

Canals leading from Lake Okeechobee -- the great incubator of water-fouling agricultural nutrients -- to the St. Lucie River on the east coast and the Caloosahatchee River to the west are turning a glowing green, a warning light that another massive algae bloom could decimate tourism as it did in 2016. On top of the putrid smell, the blooms pose a danger to human health. Gov. Scott declared a state of emergency and ordered state water managers to try to stop the spread. But his spokesman also dismissed the assertion -- from scientists, no less -- that Florida's 2.6 million septic tanks are contributing to the outbreak, and called it "absurd" to suggest that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to repeal a law requiring the tanks to be inspected for leaks.

SunPass

Maintenance to the SunPass tolling system began June 5 and was expected to take about a week. Twenty-five days later, the system was still offline and a backlog of 90 million transactions had stacked up. Now, more than six weeks on, the problems still aren't resolved. The company has given predictable assurances but offered no timeline for completing the work. The state Department of Transportation announced it would stop paying Conduent until the system is up and running, the right move given the enormity of the failure. Better still would have been for DOT to award the $343 million contract to a company that didn't have a history of customer service failures in at least seven other states -- which Florida officials knew about.

Beach access

Three months after Gov. Rick Scott signed a law intended to clarify beachfront property owners' rights, he issued a moratorium on enforcing it -- because of a lack of clarity. In Florida, many homeowners own the sand down to the average high-water line, but the public has generally been allowed to use the entire dry sand area on many beaches under the principle of "customary use." The new law requires local governments to go to court to assert customary use. When it took effect July 1, some property owners around the state posted "no trespassing" signs and hired security guards to keep the public out, and a perception began to spread that the state's beaches were no longer open to the public. Sensing a public relations disaster in the making, Scott sought to nip it in the bud. The law remains on the books. Does that clear things up?