On Florida’s St. Lucie River, east of Lake Okeechobee, locks and a dam hold water before it races downstream to the estuary on what is known as Florida’s Treasure Coast.
But looking out over the river, Stephen Davis with the Everglades Foundation sees signs of trouble. “There’s a pretty substantial mat of the blue-green algae we see floating on the surface,” the wetland ecologist says. “As soon as these gates are open, the water will pass out into the estuary.”
Peter Girard with the environmental group Bullsugar.org says, “You can smell it before you see it. And of course, heading into the holiday weekend, you had beach closings around the inlet up and down the Treasure Coast.”
For months now, mats of algae from Lake Okeechobee have been flowing down the river, bringing toxins that can affect people and animals. In beach communities east of the lake, the algae have had a big impact on tourism and businesses.
With more toxic algae blooms on Florida’s west coast and a red tide algae bloom causing massive fish kills in the Gulf of Mexico, water quality is increasingly having a big impact on key midterm races in Florida. While Democrats tend to be more outspoken on environmental issues, Republican candidates are also speaking up because they’re feeling the heat.
For Brian Mast — a Republican congressman whose district is east of Lake Okeechobee — the algae bloom, water quality and the environment have become a signature issue. At a recent news conference on the waterfront in Stuart, Mast said, “I’ve got a dock in out my backyard. My kids like to jump in the water. I can tell you that 2018, my family hasn’t been out on this water for recreation, not once.”
Two years ago, this district went solidly for Donald Trump, electing Mast and flipping the seat from Democratic to Republican. Since then, Mast has been a reliable member of the Republican caucus, voting to repeal Obamacare. But he’s staked out independent positions on some issues, especially those involving Lake Okeechobee and water quality.