TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Fifty-four businesses from seven counties have alerted the state they have suffered some form of economic damage from toxic green algae coating waterways in parts of Florida.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity has been compiling data the past two weeks to determine which programs will help recovery efforts, agency spokeswoman Morgan McCord said.
"All of these businesses have indicated economic damage, and a handful have expressed interest in (Small Business Administration) economic injury loans and bridge loans from the state," McCord said.
Gov. Rick Scott's office said Wednesday the U.S. Small Business Administration has opened a recovery center in Martin County to help businesses affected by the algae blooms, excessive rain and flooding. Through that effort, assistance will be available to qualifying businesses in 19 counties in South and Central Florida.
The 54 businesses that have contacted the state about algae-related economic damages are involved in industries such as fishing, boating, restaurants and retail.
Half of the complaints have come from businesses in Martin County, where the outcry about the algae has been the loudest.
The Martin County Commission declared a state of emergency last month in response to the algae after elevated levels of toxins were found at sampling sites along the St. Lucie River. The county's health department also issued an advisory that encouraged people to avoid discolored water or visible blooms.
Another 11 businesses have reported impacts in St. Lucie County and 12 are from Lee County.
Reports have also been filed by single businesses in Palm Beach, Indian River and Sarasota counties and the inland Sumter County.
On June 29, Scott issued an emergency order for Martin and St. Lucie counties because of widespread algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, located on the east and west sides of Lake Okeechobee. Lee and Palm Beach counties were added the next day.
Scott has also said he will include in his proposed budget for next year matching-grant money for local governments to reduce the use of septic systems, which is believed to contribute to the water conditions.
Meanwhile, incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, intends to pursue the use of voter-approved environmental money to buy land and shift the flow of water south out of Lake Okeechobee. Nutrient-laden water is now sent into waterways to the east and west when lake levels get too high.
Both proposals have come amid renewed calls for acquiring sugar-industry land to allow water to be sent south from Lake Okeechobee and revisiting state management of water quality rules that have been imposed since 2011.
On Wednesday, the James Madison Institute, a Tallahassee-based free-market think tank, issued a report that advised lawmakers not to rush into making policy changes.
"Whatever projects are going to fix some of these problems, let's make sure that they are scientifically based, and not based on just somebody's opinion or emotion … it's not just a computer model that someone put together," said Dan Peterson, the institute's director of the Center for Property Rights. "Let's really dig in and get some scientific data, so we have a firm foundation for our decisions."
Peterson authored the report, which proposes a study to determine the impact on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries from local runoff and from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-regulated releases of water from Lake Okeechobee.
News Service of Florida Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report.