water quality press

These are the dirtiest waterways in South Florida. Are they in your neighborhood?

By Alan Halaly

Published: July 17, 2023

Read the original article in the Miami Herald.

As a yacht full of 20-somethings zips through Miami’s concrete jungle past Jose Marti Park, blaring Latto’s “Put It On The Floor,” Aliza Karim dipped an extendable metal stick with a bottle tied at the end into the Miami River.

After flushing out the bottle three times and scooping up 100 milliliters, she lifts it up and takes a peek. The water looks pretty clear, though it’s a good bet that it’s teeming with bacteria that is a telltale sign of human waste.

Within days, Miamians will be able to see the results via Swim Guide, a free app that indicates whether waterways are safe for recreational use. A lot of them aren’t.

There are many reasons for that. For instance, it happens to be a typical South Florida rainy day during this sampling visit. That can be bad news for water quality in the Miami River and waterways across the region. Stormwater collected through grates in the street pour out into the canal’s outfalls, carrying with them a whole host of nasty stuff.

It’s not just bad for these locations. Miami River and many of those canals ultimately feed into bigger bodies of water like Biscayne Bay — a lagoon that scientists have long said is on life support from pollution and other problems. This could be particularly bad for the bay, as this year’s record sea surface temperatures mixed with runoff could prompt fish kills.

“With rainfall comes stormwater runoff,” Karim said. “That means all of the fertilizer, the dog poo, the septic tank leaking, which is usually raw sewage, is also running in through the stormwater system into the water.”

Aliza Karim, Miami Waterkeeper’s water quality research manager, dips a 100 milliliter bottle into the canal at Jose Marti Park Thursday, June 29, in Miami, Fla.
Aliza Karim, Miami Waterkeeper’s water quality research manager, dips a 100 milliliter bottle into the canal at Jose Marti Park Thursday, June 29, in Miami, Fla.

This sampling effort is a weekly habit for Karim, Miami Waterkeeper’s water quality research manager, whose team samples 27 sites across Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

And looking at the group’s 2022 report, water quality problems are widespread.

A side-by-side taken from Miami Waterkeeper’s 2022 annual report shows how well South Florida canals and beaches fared that year with bacteria tests based on a recreational standard.
A side-by-side taken from Miami Waterkeeper’s 2022 annual report shows how well South Florida canals and beaches fared that year with bacteria tests based on a recreational standard.

What Karim and her team are monitoring for in routine checks — along with factors like turbidity, salinity and temperature — is enterococci bacteria, a pollutant living in the intestinal tracts of warm-blooded animals. Water scientists generally use it as an indicator of poop matter and a warning sign for public health.

This spot, Jose Marti Park, didn’t meet recreational standards 59.7% of the time in 2022, according to the report.

Though enterococci bacteria in small doses isn’t necessarily dangerous, Karim said levels can often signal there are more harmful viral pathogens afoot. “By itself, enterococci bacteria is not harmful,” she said. “But if it’s high or in high amounts, you’re much more likely to be exposed to something harmful.”

The group uses recreational standards to measure bacteria in the water — enterococci levels above 70 enterococci per 100 milliliters of water indicate a high level. Moderate levels are 36-70 enterococci per 100 mL, and a good level is 35 or less.

Sampling sites were chosen to reflect areas where there may be recreational use of the water, Karim said.

Eleven of the 27 sites failed more than half of its tests in 2022 across Broward and Miami-Dade counties. The Miami Herald reached out to officials in each area with a bacteria hotspot to further investigate what cities are doing to mitigate bacteria issues. Here are the sites with the biggest issues last year:

North Miami: West Arch Creek

Miami Waterkeeper only began sampling West Arch Creek in June 2022. But in only a short while, its numbers have been staggering — out of all 27 sites, it failed the most bacteria tests, with a 98.1% fail rate last year.

The creek passes through both Arch Creek Park and Enchanted Forest Elaine Gordon Park, eventually flowing into Biscayne Bay.

Arch Creek Park is county-run — with a bacteria problem leaders are aware of through routine testing at the Department of Environmental Resources Management, said director Lisa Spadafina.

“It ebbs and flows,” she said. “The conditions of the day can really dictate what’s happening out there.”

The county is constantly monitoring sewage systems, she said, and also implemented a program in 2022 called Connect 2 Protect, which aims to replace and update the county’s nearly 9,000 septic tank systems that could fail under current conditions.

“The [county] mayor is taking this very seriously,” Spadafina said. “We have many initiatives, multi-millions of dollars being spent on capital improvement infrastructure and projects, in addition to all of our monitoring so that we can have a better handle on the sources of our pollution.”

North Miami Beach: East Greynolds Park

In North Miami Beach, East Greynolds Park is home to a kayak launch and a fishing dock. It’s also a popular hotspot for residents to walk their dogs — something that could be a contributing factor to the canal’s pollution levels.

The park makes the list with a 51.2% fail rate.

A city spokesperson didn’t respond to questions about North Miami Beach’s efforts to improve quality in time for publication, but it’s also part of the canal system the county has a handle on.

Though progress is gradual, Spadafina said she’s optimistic residents will see water quality improvements in canals in the next couple of years.

“We can’t necessarily do it overnight,” Spadafina said. “But we are extremely committed to seeing all of these things through so that eventually over time, we can start moving the needle in the opposite direction.”

Miami: Little River, Jose Marti Park and Biscayne Canal

There are two testing sites along Miami’s Little River, both of which fell at or above a 84% fail rate for bacteria sampling. Jose Marti Park and Biscayne Canal had 59.7% and 53.5% fail rates, respectively.

Jose Marti Park is a favorite for ships to pass through to larger waterways. Miami Country Day School offers students canoeing and kayaking opportunities along Biscayne Canal, so both are frequently used for recreation.

When asked about what’s being done at these sites, city of Miami spokesperson Kenia Fallat said stormwater systems feeding into Little River are inspected twice a year and upkeep happens every two years, compared to three to five year maintence for other sites. The city tests water quality twice a year.

Other actions to keep canals clean include litter control, education about fertilizer ordinances and new sewer grates to prevent debris and waste from spilling into the river through the stormwater system, Fallat said.

Christi LeMahieu, lab director of Surfrider Miami’s Blue Water Task Force that tests a separate set of waters — mostly beaches — said she has noticed a noticeable drop in water quality since the group began testing in 2018.

Surfrider’s testing, which complements that of Miami Waterkeeper, is continuing to ramp up as it nears 25 sites. Its results are also available via Swim Guide.

“The beaches seem to be OK,” LeMahieu said. “But the the inner canals and Biscayne Bay are our problem child.”

Fort Lauderdale: Sweeting Park, Annie Beck Park, Himmarshee Canal and Tarpon River

In Broward County, canals in Fort Lauderdale fared poorly last year.

Sweeting Park came in dead last in all of South Florida, failing bacteria tests 93.9% of the time. Himmarshee Canal, the Tarpon River and Annie Beck Park were problematic, too, failing 76.9%, 64.6% and 53.8% of the time, respectively.

Most of the canals at these sites are far inland and don’t get flushed out often by tidal action. That can be an issue as pollution tends to snowball in standing water, said Rachel Silverstein, Miami Waterkeeper’s executive director.

“Waters that are further from the ocean typically have higher bacteria levels,” Silverstein said. “They’re not getting very well flushed by the ocean. Areas that are closer to the coast are having more tidal interchange between either the bay or the ocean, so they’re a little bit cleaner.”

The city is well aware of the issue.

Nancy Gassman, Fort Lauderdale’s assistant public works director, said recreational limits are the “most conservative” standard the city could be holding itself to.

“There’s a bacterial concern in almost all urban waterways,” Gassman said. “This is not unique. It’s just that we happen to be monitoring and using a recreational standard that is available to the public in near real time so that they can determine whether they want to recreate those waters.”

The Tarpon River in Fort Lauderdale is among the South Florida waterways with a persistent bacteria problem.
The Tarpon River in Fort Lauderdale is among the South Florida waterways with a persistent bacteria problem.

These three sites aren’t officially cleared for water sport activities, she said. But city officials worked with Miami Waterkeeper because they are spots where residents could enter the water with a kayak or canoe.

Signs at each location warn residents of potential water quality issues, each with QR codes that take them directly to the Swim Guide app, Gassman said, in an effort to allow people to educate themselves with their smartphones.

Fort Lauderdale is constantly looking for potential sources of pollution like pet waste or sewage leaks, she said. But that’s not always a simple task.

“There’s always action being taken,” Gassman said. “It’s not always easy to find the source of a particular bacterial concern.”

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