Businesses impacted by toxic algae blooms linked to water releases from Lake Okeechobee have until the end of August to apply for short-term loans to help get through the problems plaguing parts of Southeast and Southwest Florida.
The state made its bridge-loan program available Thursday, as 59 businesses --- mostly in Martin, St. Lucie and Lee counties --- have so far reported some form of financial impacts from the toxic blooms.
Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Cissy Proctor said the impacts include such things as a decrease in tourists to the counties, fewer people going to restaurants and fewer people using recreational facilities on or near the water.
"We've seen the reports of these blooms not only on our local news, but on the national news," Proctor said. "And we're also seeing that even if (people) are going down to visit, they're not going out on their boats. They're not going out to see the manatees. They're not going out to do the things that you normally do, especially in these areas on the water that are recreationally or are part of these folks' livelihood."
The loans are available only to businesses in four counties in which Gov. Rick Scott has declared an emergency: Martin, St. Lucie, Lee and Palm Beach.
"The purpose of the bridge loan is to provide small businesses very fast working capital, to make sure they are able to stay open and stay on their feet and recover from any sort of disaster," Proctor said.
The announcement followed the opening of a U.S. Small Business Administration recovery center Wednesday at the Martin County Fairgrounds.
The federal center is intended to help businesses affected by the algae and nutrient-loaded water releases from the lake, along with recent flooding and excessive rain, in Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Hendry, Highlands, Indian River, Lee, Martin, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Okeechobee, Osceola, Palm Beach, Polk, St. Lucie and Sarasota counties.
Meanwhile Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that starting Friday it would reduce daily water releases from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. Water is sent into the estuaries when lake levels get too high, helping relieve pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike.
"As a result of water releases, drier conditions and decreased inflows, the lake level has started to recede," Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District commander, said in a prepared statement. "Although the lake is still high for this time of year, current conditions are providing us with the opportunity to further reduce discharges and bring some degree of relief to the estuaries experiencing above-normal seasonal algal blooms."
Also, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Tallahassee Democrat considering a 2018 gubernatorial bid, criticized Scott for repeatedly trying to put the blame for the toxic algae blooms on President Barack Obama.
"I've spoken with the Indian Riverkeeper, Martin County business owners and scientists --- and not one of them has blamed the president for this crisis," Graham wrote in a letter to Scott on Wednesday. "In fact, many of them are frustrated with our state government and hungry for you to exhibit leadership on this issue."
Graham said Scott should call a special legislative session focused on environmental solutions and that the governor should replace his South Florida Water Management District appointments with "actual scientists."
Graham was responding to a letter Scott sent on Tuesday that asked members of the state's congressional delegation to push for federal help to deal with the massive algae problems.