Power From Struggle, Risk In Success

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAR 23, 2019

If a hearing this week in the Florida Senate offered any hint, it will be an easy sell to fund a red tide institute at Mote Marine Laboratory this year.

State Sen. Joe Gruters spent a couple minutes outlining the need to study harmful algal blooms. There was no pushback from colleagues. The Environment and Natural Resources Committee unanimously advanced a hefty ask for $3 million a year over the next six years.

The issue now goes to Appropriations, where there may be more difficulty in finding the actual dollars to spend. But Gruters doesn't sound too worried.

"Six years is a reasonable request when look at economic damage it [red tide[ does to the coast," Gruters said.

He probably doesn't have reason to fear this year. Gov. Ron DeSantis made environmental restoration a major priority upon taking office, fully aware voters across political lines want to see algae issues solved quickly. Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton pol, lived through red tide just like Gruters. Speaker of the House Jose Oliva didn’t see the disaster as vividly from Miami, but he knows the threat, and many of his members will be happy to share stories from the front lines. That’s why the entire Bay Area Delegation this year endorsed the institute as a priority this year.

Honestly, funding red tide on the heels of a disaster proves easy. It always has, even with much smaller ecological threats than the one seen in 2018. At least from the Gulf Coast, it seemed the most potent threat to a Republican majority in Tallahassee last year was the Karenia brevis tainting the water and killing local fish. Incumbents don’t want to spent October of 2020 crossing their fingers and hoping the tide calls the algae back out to sea before the next election. And frankly, Democratic incumbents don't want that either.

But Mote leaders have wisely stressed the need for multi-year funding. Grants in the immediate aftermath of algal outbreaks provide swift but waning relief. Serious study requires a long-term commitment to research.

Still, I winced a little at a hearing suggestion that six years of funding were what Mote needed to solve this problem. Gruters maintains that's all the experts truly need to get the problem under control.

But then, Mote can't show up in Tallahassee and say, actually, there's no telling how long it will take to contain red tide and mostly likely we never will. That doesn’t inspire confidence or properly sell the Sarasota institute as a gathering of experts. Sometimes the smartest thing a scientist can do is admit all they don’t know. An appropriations battle isn’t that time.

Don't worry. We can expect Mote scientists to hit this problem as hard as they can and to develop as many effective ways to treat red tide and forecast future blooms. Every bit of data will prove invaluable to the region’s ecology and economy.

But what Mote really needs is permanent funding indefinitely. No matter how much they learn in the next six years, they will be more discoveries. Questions will arise that nobody has even contemplated yet. Indeed, residents must remind themselves as research unfolds that proper study may uncover more questions than answers.

At least from a funding standpoint, that may be good news in the end anyhow. While scientists don’t want to end six years with no progress to claim, claiming victory over nature would be foolish in multiple ways. Such hubris might poison the air with a worse stench than we’ve inhaled already.

But come 2025, there may neeed to be a private source of funding. Local government may need to step up or the federal government may need to step in. Hopefully that state will continue providing needed support. On that front, it probably will help the lawmakers then to know there’s still a problem that needs to be solved.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor of SRQ Media Group.

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