DeSantis, Newsom, and the Algae Apocalypse
It would not be surprising if the final candidates for the U.S. presidency in November 2024 are Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But if a younger generation of candidates prevail in their respective primaries, an equally unsurprising outcome would be Gavin Newsom pitted against Ron DeSantis.
While purists on both sides may find Newsom and DeSantis to be far from perfect embodiments of their ideals, a contest between these two governors would nonetheless be a contest between two very different visions for the future of America, insofar as they govern two big states that diverge on almost every policy of consequence.
The prevailing perception of a hypothetical race between Newsom and DeSantis focuses on cultural issues, with both of them claiming their state is a beacon of freedom. But a comparison of equal consequence could be based on their response to environmental challenges.
Genuine Environmental Threats vs Environmentalism Inc.
One of the many tragic outcomes of overhyping the “climate crisis” is that for millions of skeptics, the entire environmentalist movement has lost credibility. In many cases, it is deserved. Organizations that used to have specific and relatively unassailable missions, such as Greenpeace back in the days when all they existed for was to save endangered whales, have now morphed into politicized caricatures that their founders wouldn’t recognize.
The environmentalist movement in the world, and in America in particular, has used the rhetorical bludgeon of an imminent “climate catastrophe” to terrify every child, intimidate every politician, and coopt every major corporation on earth – although to be fair, monopolistic corporations have easily exploited the climate agenda to blaze a profitable pathway to even more market dominance and captive profits. Meanwhile, genuine environmental threats, lacking the sex appeal of surging seas and flaming forests, are not getting the attention they deserve. Examples of this are plentiful, and and California is ground zero.
Instead of working with the timber industry to resume responsible logging in California, the business model of Environmentalism Inc. is to blame superfires on climate change and force grotesquely expensive (and profitable) electrification on consumers. Instead of recognizing that introduced predators and untreated urban wastewater are the primary threats to native salmon in California, Environmentalism Inc. blames climate change and litigates to stop new water infrastructure or water withdrawals for farm irrigation, forcing the price of water up which enriches hedge funds that buy up distressed farm properties for the water rights. Wherever there’s “climate change,” follow the money.
Which brings us to a challenge for Newsom and DeSantis: Which one of these governors will take effective action to eliminate the causes of the nutrient fed algae blooms that threaten to degrade, possibly fatally, major aquatic ecosystems in their states?
The Real Threat vs the Fake Threat Posed by Nitrogen and Phosphorus
There has been justifiable pushback by farmers around the world against environmentalist inspired regulations that claim nitrogen fertilizer will cause climate change. Fertilizer will not cause climate change. It’s a fake threat. But the problems caused by introducing nitrogen and phosphorus into lakes and estuaries are nonetheless not trivial. These nutrients feed algae blooms; the more nutrients, the more algae. Not only are high concentrations of algae potentially toxic to humans and marine life, but when the algae dies its decay consumes all the oxygen in the water, creating a so-called dead zone.
Here again, the corruption of the environmentalist movement has made it impossible to reliably assess the seriousness of any threat to the environment. But whether excessive levels of nutrient runoff in the waterways of the world will eventually feed an apocalyptic bloom of algae, or just nourish an assortment of regional blights that ought to get cleaned up, it turns out that Newsom and DeSantis both face the challenge of nutrient pollution in their states.
Two major examples of nutrient pollution causing toxic blooms of algae followed by dead zones are California’s San Francisco Bay, and Florida’s Lake Okeechobee. In both cases, nutrient rich runoff has nourished toxic algae blooms and consequent dead zones. In the California, the primary culprit are three dozen urban wastewater treatment plants situated along the shore of the bay. In Florida, most of the problem is caused by agricultural runoff.
Which state, and which governor, will be the first to fix this problem? In Florida, within days of taking office, Governor DeSantis signed an executive order initiating water quality reforms. It was designed to remediate the immediate problem by researching and deploying products to remove algae, while also expediting long-term efforts to address the root causes of algae blooms.
What, by contrast, have the Californians done? What has Governor Newsom done? Not so much. In explaining the cause of the unusually severe 2022 algae bloom in the San Francisco Bay, the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies – while acknowledging the role of nutrients in feeding algae – had this to say: “During Summer 2022, there were two unusual conditions in the SF Bay – less fog and clearer water than usual. These two factors are linked to climate change and increased the amount of sunlight available to the algae, potentially contributing to the start of and growth of the bloom.”
“Less fog and clearer water,” which is “linked to climate change.” The link isn’t explained.
The environmentalist approved response to nutrient pollution in the San Francisco Bay has driven the state’s water policy for years. It calls for maximizing flows out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in order to dilute the nitrogen pollution in the San Francisco Bay. This “solution,” because it dovetails with the environmentalist agenda to leave as much water as possible – all of it if they could get away with it – in California’s rivers for the fish, has been the default recourse and has reduced the urgency to upgrade wastewater treatment.
Newsom, to his credit, defied the environmentalists during the recent heavy rains and authorized a higher rate of pumping from the Delta into the California Aqueduct to store more runoff for California’s farms and cities, leaving slightly less flow available to flush out the San Francisco Bay. But if Newsom hopes to decisively address nutrient pollution, he would issue an executive order that immediately tightens the standards for treatment of urban wastewater in the San Francisco Bay, and declare a state of emergency to obtain the $10-15 billion necessary to design and build those upgrades.
At the same time, Newsom could use the power of his office to force the California Department of Water Resources to allocate more diversions from the Delta during storm events, and to fast-track construction of environmentally friendly diversion technologies. During major storms, California squanders millions of acre feet of runoff, because they lack the necessary infrastructure to capture and store that water, and because they lack the regulatory framework to decisively make use of what infrastructure they do have.
One does not get the impression that Ron DeSantis would waste time appeasing environmentalist activists who aren’t even willing to admit the primary threat to salmon in California are nutrient pollution (also affecting salmon health in coastal waters) and introduced alien predators. He would get those wastewater treatment plants upgraded, and it would take years, not decades. And the environment would benefit, even as Environmentalism Inc. would have to take a quarterly loss.
Environmental Solutions Matter More Than Exposing Environmentalism Inc.
The conservative response to the reality of nutrient pollution has been to debunk the climate change explanation for the problem. Perhaps the most dignified analysis of the San Francisco Bay’s recent “dead zone” was recently published by the National Review, in an article titled “Wastewater, Not Climate, Fueled Massive Algae Bloom in ‘Epicenter of Supposed Environmentalism’.”
It’s important to expose the hidden agendas and false explanations promoted by Environmentalism Inc., because it helps everyone realize that mainstream environmentalism has been hijacked and is more focused on resetting the political economy of the world than in protecting the environment. Read “Renewables Aren’t Renewable” for a tedious but diligent recitation, yet again, of just how misguided environmentalist dogma has become. But it’s not enough to criticize. Conservatives need to identify and support practical solutions to genuine environmental concerns.
If the nutrient loads that foul marine environments come from fertilizer, along with runoff from feedlots and inadequately treated human waste, then identify ways to recover and reuse the nutrients. What’s food for algae – nitrogen and phosphorus, is also an essential soil nutrient. Without industrial quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus, modern agriculture would not exist. From Saskatchewan to Sri Lanka, we have seen the consequences of denying fertilizer to farmers, and it’s the wrong approach.
The so-called circular economy, like every other environmentalist concept, has as many valid applications as it has versions that are abused. Navigating the gauntlet of innovators that promise solutions to challenges like recycling and reusing nutrients means differentiating between companies whose substance is limited to a press release and a PowerPoint file, and those with technical and commercial viability. Conservatives can help by looking for these companies, applying the skepticism that activist journalists no longer display, but also with the faith that within the herd of pretenders there are also contenders for breakthroughs that will disrupt everything.
When it comes to nutrient recapture, new entrants include companies selling more efficient phosphate fertilizer, or offering ways to recover phosphorus from sewage sludge. There are emerging technologies offering improvements in electrochemical removal of nitrogen from waste, as well as removal through advanced filtration. Every year, improvements in anaerobic digestion systems make large scale harvesting and reusing nutrients found in animal waste more commercially viable. We can make fun, as we should, of the pilot project wherein cattle had inflatable bags surgically connected to their stomachs so they could fill up with methane, which would presumably be harvested several times a day to be used as a green energy source – yes, they’re really doing this – but we might also identify and support commercially viable ways to extract ammonia, phosphorus, and nitrogen from feedlot dung, so it can be reused to fertilize fields instead of running off into the river.
Ultimately what Newsom represents, even if he has modified his rhetoric, is a state suffering from bureaucratic paralysis, the fatal distraction of identity politics intruding into every aspect of governance, and a litigious environmentalist community that exercises almost absolute veto power over every policy initiative that involves so much as a scratch in the ground. DeSantis, for his part, deals with a bureaucracy that retains its capacity to move fast when pushed hard, and he is willing to stare down and right-size the agenda of environmentalist extremists.
For America’s conservatives, vanquishing woke extremists is only half the battle. Right sizing the environmentalist movement down to an appropriate level of influence in the affairs of civilization is equally important, and may be a harder battle. Between now and November 2024, what happens in Lake Okeechobee, and in the San Francisco Bay, bears close watching.
This article originally appeared in American Greatness.
Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is also a senior fellow with the Center for American Greatness, and a regular contributor to the California Globe. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Forbes, and other media outlets.
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