Miami Waterkeeper is taking monumental steps to protect Biscayne Bay
On August 14, Dr. Elizabeth Kelly, Water Quality Research Manager at Miami Waterkeeper, went on her usual patrol to check the health status of Biscayne Bay, the turquoise paradise that ‘laps at the coast of southeast Florida and kisses the barrier island of Miami Beach.’
With a Ph.D. from the University of Miami, Elizabeth specializes in environmental microbiology. She regularly samples Miami-Dade County’s recreational waters for the presence of indicator bacteria. The results demonstrated very low dissolved oxygen levels in North Bay, near Pelican Harbor. Then thousands of dead fish washed up on the shore.
Miami Waterkeeper, a passionate team of scientists and water marine advocates, immediately coordinated with Miami-Dade County and Port Miami to install emergency aeration devices and pumps. But those measures were temporary solutions in the long-lasting fight against water pollution.
Canals are still carrying trash, fertilizer runoff and contaminants from failing septic tanks directly into the Bay. The overwhelming amount of pollutants could cause blue-green algae blooms that block the sunlight that underwater plant life needs to survive and regulate the oxygen in the Bay.
To turn the tide, Miami Waterkeeper, along with its powerful force of supporters, alarmed local authorities to take immediate measures to reduce contamination and restore the health of the Bay. Their calls were heard.
Algae blooms are spreading without resistance, clogging waterways, turning the water green, emitting foul smells, and might killing wildlife. Report dumping at email@example.com
Fertilizer ordinance: know your nutrients
The aforementioned ‘friend’ of algae blooms is the phosphorus in fertilizer, a common household item that people innocently use to make their gardens flourish. As explained by Miami Waterkeeper, when these nutrients flow into waterways, which eventually lead to the ocean and could cause highly toxic algae blooms.
This September, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Levine Cava proposed a fertilizer ordinance that will ban fertilizer use near the shore and during the rainy season, and limit the use of nitrogen – three factors that pollute our waterways, contribute to seagrass die-off, and cause environmental problems.
This ordinance was passed unanimously during the virtual Miami Dade County Commission meeting, incorporating all proposed amendments from Miami Waterkeeper to strengthen measures to further curb nutrient pollution in our waterways.
Higher fees for construction waste
The same month, Miami Waterkeeper received many reports of pollution that said the sources were construction sites. The construction waste left on city streets flows into storm drains, which then flows into Biscayne Bay and smothers seagrass.
Ken Russell, Miami Commissioner, explained that the fee for illegally dumping waste into the Bay is so little compared to the budgets of these large-scale projects that the corporations don't worry about it. He emphasizes, “Biscayne Bay is the lifeblood of our economy and quality of life. We cannot let hurting the Bay be just a cost of doing business.”
A resolution that was recently passed increases the penalties, meaning that an entire construction site could be shut down if they violate the code.
As explained by the City of Miami, “The new rules, proposed by Vice Chairman Ken Russell, would impose fines, stop work orders and other measures for construction sites that ignore the city’s anti-pollution rules.”
Septic tanks have been a known threat to the environment and human population since 1971, when the Federal Water Quality Administration first reported the risk and made plans to reduce the potential damage. Since that time, the plans to remove septic tanks and ban their use in lots smaller than 15,000 square feet were largely ignored by local governments.
Sewage spills from an aging system, and even more pressing, the county’s more than 100,000 septic tanks continuously spew waste into our groundwater -- which flows directly into the Bay.
The entire wastewater infrastructure is undergoing a $1.6 billion upgrade that the county must complete by 2028. As commissioner Cava said, the Miami-Dade Water and Sewage Department is allocating funds to connect some of their lines to homes with the most hazardous septic tanks, greatly reducing the cost to homeowners.
“Obviously, we can’t overnight convert all septic to sewer, so we have to triage and prioritize those that are creating the biggest problem,” said Cava.
As of 2022, Miami Dade has created the Connect 2 Protect program which will convert septic systems into the proper sewer service over a series of 30 projects over the next year. $126 million has been invested into upgrading the water infrastructure for the benefit of human and environmental health.
The damage is not permanent if we act now
“The remedy for the seagrass die-off, fish kills and algae blooms must be addressed by curtailing sewage leaks, converting septic tanks to centralized wastewater treatment, cleaning and treating stormwater, and reducing fertilizer overuse,” summarized Rachel Silverstein, Ph.D., Executive Director of Miami Waterkeeper.
In the 1980s, Tampa lost the majority of its seagrass due to excess nitrogen. They implemented policies right away, and even though it took 20 years to see any improvement, they have now fully recovered all their seagrass. We can too.
(This article has been updated on Feb 2022.)
How can the rest of us help?
Hundreds of people are becoming environmentally aware and taking action; more and more citizens are protesting, volunteering, and speaking up at county meetings to help save Biscayne Bay. As unfortunate as the damage is, it has drawn the necessary attention from the public to create positive change, and you can start here:
1000 Eyes on the Water
Report fish kills and algae blooms at firstname.lastname@example.org or @miamiwaterkeeper with the time, date, location and photos immediately.
Reduce/stop using fertilizers
Instead of using fertilizer, plant native plants that do not need the extra help. You'll save money on fertilizer and bring native organisms back to their homes. Check out this list of native plants at regionalconservation.org
Check your septic tanks
There are approximately 2.6 million septic tanks in Florida, and many people do not even know they have one. Septic tanks are constantly breaking down due to age and sea level rise, and they cause waste to flow into the water system. If you have a septic tank, check if it is broken and/or look into connecting it to the sewer system.
Protect storm drains and sewer systems
· Keep leaves and grass clippings out of storm drain systems
· Pick up after your dogs
· Make sure trash does not go into storm drains
· Do not flush wipes, even if they are marked as flushable
· Prevent car wash water from flowing into the storm drains
Volunteer with organizations such as Miami Waterkeeper, the Surfrider Foundation, Citizens for a Better South Florida and VolunteerCleanup.org