DeSantis, Newsom, and the Algae Apocalypse

It would not be surprising if the final candidates for president in November 2024 were Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But if a younger generation of candidates prevails in their respective primaries, an equally unsurprising outcome would be Gavin Newsom pitted against Ron DeSantis.

While purists on both sides may find the California Democrat and the Florida Republican 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 their mission 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 California is ground zero.

Instead of working with the timber industry to resume responsible logging in the Golden State, 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 to go up, which enriches hedge funds that buy up distressed farm properties for the water rights. Wherever you find “climate change” narratives, 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?

Real Threats vs. Fake Threats

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 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 that kills the oceans, 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 California, the primary culprit is 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 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 San Francisco 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 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 San Francisco Bay. This “solution,” because it dovetails with the environmentalist agenda to leave as much water as possible in California’s rivers for the fish—they would leave all of it if they could get away with it—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 urban wastewater treatment in the San Francisco Bay, and declare a state of emergency to obtain the $10 billion to $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 is 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.

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 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 we must 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 innovations that promises solutions to challenges like recycling and reusing nutrients means differentiating between companies with substance that is limited to press releases and PowerPoint files, and those with technical and commercial viability. Conservatives can help by looking for these companies and applying the skepticism that activist journalists no longer display, but also by maintaining the faith that within the herd of pretenders, there must also be 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 of nutrients found in animal waste more commercially viable.

We can make fun, as we should, of the pilot projects wherein cattle have 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 thisbut 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.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

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