By John Pacenti
Published: April 27, 2023
After decades of abuse, some environmentalists and scientists think the health of Biscayne Bay will get worse before it gets better.
But with climate change and development unabated, and a public largely apathetic, the ecological jewel may be out of time.
Three years after an alarming massive fish kill, Biscayne Bay is not getting any healthier despite efforts by Miami-Dade County and municipalities to stop pollutants from infiltrating the fragile ecosystem, a new report finds.
Twelve tested areas in the bay remain the same – or graded fair – and three areas have gotten worse than last year – graded poor – in the annual report by the Miami-Dade County’s Biscayne Bay Task Force.
There was not a single area of the bay that graded “good.”
In the area just off Key Biscayne’s coast, the water quality was rated “fair” in all its readings with high chlorophyll concentrations and some elevated nutrients.
In a letter accompanying the D-minus report card, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said she is ready to propose new requirements for roads, canals and private property.
Rumya Sundaram is the director of environmental science for the Key Biscayne Community Foundation and the environmental editor of the Key Biscayne Independent.
She called the report card “definitely disconcerting” considering the effort made by the county to address pollutants. “It is not showing in the numbers regarding the quality of the water of the bay,” Sundaram said. “Maybe, it gets worse before it gets better.”
County and local governments have tried recently to address contamination from “nutrients” by fining polluters while addressing storm water drainage and outdated septic tanks.
“We have a lot of very smart and dedicated people trying to address the health of Biscayne Bay in a variety of ways. But as the most recent report card indicates, we’re not getting there fast enough,” Commissioner Raquel Regalado, whose District 7 encompasses Key Biscayne, said in an email.
Audrey Siu, policy director at Miami Waterkeeper, a non-profit advocating for South Florida’s watershed and wildlife, added: “This is multidecadal and legacy pollution. It’s going to take more than a few years to clean up.”
“We are seeing a regime shift where seagrass is dying off in vast quantities and being replaced by algae,” she said.
Siu worries it is all too late, that the bay is close to “a tipping point” where it may never be able to recover.
“The bay is an aesthetic cultural and economic jewel and without it Miami isn’t Miami,” Siu said. “The bay is a powerful economic driver that we can not afford to lose.”
The Biscayne Bay Task Force and its report card were the brainchild of Levine Cava when she was a commissioner in 2018. Then came the fish kill in 2020, the largest recorded in the bay affecting 27,000 marine creatures from a severe algae bloom that stretched from North Miami to Virginia Key.
“The fish kill made our entire community aware of the importance of water quality,” Levine Cava said in an April 14 letter to the commission. “It also put a spotlight on the role that our activity on the land plays in impacting Biscayne Bay.”
The mayor said the fish kill could be directly traced to nutrients carried in by pollutants from streets and neighborhoods. Last year, the commission significantly increased fines for environmental violations that could pollute ground and surface waters.
“The report card underscores our need to continue aggressive pursuit of the many positive actions that my administration has undertaken to restore the health of the bay,” Levine Cava said.
She said she would be proposing new criteria that will amplify the enactment of the new county flood criteria.It will include minimum elevation requirements for roadways, canal banks and individual property lot so that polluted water doesn’t end up running into the bay before it is treated.
The mayor noted that state and municipal partners are necessary, “since we know water quality is unaffected by jurisdictional boundaries.”
Key Biscayne officials didn’t immediately respond for comment for this story but the Village has been working towards eliminating all septic tanks on the island, with less than a dozen remaining after numbering 2,000 a decade ago.
Furthermore, the Village Council this year approved a pilot project testing new two stormwater filtration systems.
There is also proposed legislation on septic tanks working its way through the state Legislature.
Regaldo said pennywise is pound foolish when it comes to the health of Biscayne Bay.
“The bottom line is we’re falling behind and approaching a point where the problems will become even more difficult and expensive to solve,” she said.
Regalado said she prioritized getting rid of thousands of failed septic tanks in Miami-Dade. Still, there is a significant lag in public education, she said.
“I don’t think the average person understands all the different ways that what they do in their own homes and businesses can add up to a big impact,” she said. “We need to educate properly, and then enforce what’s critical. We need to move faster on infrastructure fixes as well.”
Levine Cava said residents need to be encouraged to maintain septic tanks, refrain from using fertilizer during the rainy season and even can cook oil and grease.