water quality press

Water temps in South Florida are scorching hot, threatening the reefs, fish and quality of life

By Hillard Grossman

Published: August 1, 2023

Read the original article in Islander News.

Water temperature at the tip of the Florida Keys sizzled over 100 degrees over the past few days, perhaps the hottest water temperature in the world, meteorologists say.

Biscayne Bay temperatures have also been beginning to gurgle, increasing from 90 degrees in June to about 92 or 93.

It can only spell a dangerous situation for impacts to the usually resilient coral reefs, marine life, and recreation and tourism.

"We're on the precipice of another major disaster (following the 2000 major fish kill) in our bay, so we have to push forward," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, who last week, with the Board of County Commissioners, hosted a Science Roundtable with several experts to discuss the situation, and the potential risks and impacts, for Biscayne Bay.

"Everyone is now on 'Bay-watch,' " she said, ensuring everyone is familiar with the county's 311 app to report issues in the Bay. "Just like we prepare for hurricanes, we can prepare for heat (to protect the environment)."

Dr. Todd Crowl, Director of the Florida International University Institute of Environment, said the temperature alone is impacting corals, and he agrees with others that the bleaching potential has begun – as has been seen already in the lower Keys.

"We're lucky that we haven't had that ground-saturating rainfall," he said, noting that runoffs from septic flooded septic systems and decayed stormwater systems would only add harmful nutrients into the Bay and canals, thus dissolving oxygen and creating algae blooms.

But, as Chief Bay Officer Irela Bague said, a couple of tropical systems are headed toward Florida that might increase those chances.

Dr. Joe Serafy, a Research Fishery Biologist in the Oceanic and Coastal Pelagics Branch with NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center, said with temperatures likely going up, "what people see, these fish kills, is really a convergence (of a lot of issues).

"The die-offs are a very difficult thing to predict," he said, adding that, so far, he's only seeing a few fish that have come up dead. But, add to the stress of depleted oxygen is the stress of being caught on a fishing line. "That's what we call 'discard mortality.'

“These are worrying events, and, unfortunately, we're not very good at predicting these events because of its complexity."

Dr. Diego Lirman, who works at the University of Miami's Department of Marine Biology & Ecology, said, "The picture for the Bay still is not bad." However, his monitors say the temperatures are “beyond the norm in the central bay."

Starting in June, there's been a departure from the norm.

Mayor Cava said the County has been aggressive on several fronts to combat pollution into the waterways, such as instituting a fertilizer ban; invoking permeable surface regulations; trying to expand the septic-to-sewer conversion rate; monitoring construction sites for that type of pollution runoff, improving pump stations and sewer infrastructure; and banning companies with repeat offenses of sewer lines being accidentally cut.

"Biscayne Bay is the 'Blue Heart' of our community," she said. "I am the water warrior and have assumed a role of championing all of our waters. Chief among them is our Bay."

On Wednesday, the Mayor was looking for immediate solutions to protect the health of swimmers, the environment and future generations. Bringing together different experts from different jurisdictions is the perfect science. However, it seemed hard for them to agree on what that first step should be, other than constant monitoring of the Bay with the scientific data buoys, both during the day and at night.

There was talk of how diverting "dirty" water from septic tanks would be a great asset, even cost-effective, said Rachel Silverstein of the nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper group.

Roy Coley, Director of Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, pointed to an area such as the Biscayne Shores neighborhood, where "there's a number of folks with failing septic tanks. When it rains, they can't flush toilets; it backs up."

So, it's not the flushing, but the floodwaters washing the "dirty stuff" into the Bay.

Asked if pumping the septic tanks and providing that area and the Little River area with temporary toilet facilities was possible or would help, Coley said he wasn't sure if the County could do that and wasn't even sure if it had any regulatory authority to do that.

Mayor Cava said: "Anything we can do to divert dirty water is what we want," adding that prevention, and not necessarily reacting after there's a problem, is the urgent, primary goal.

Pamela Sweeney, senior manager with Miami-Dade County's Water Resources Division, said her group has been working with the South Florida Water Management District, looking for ways to "hold the water back to not reach the Bay."

She spoke about "smart ponds," which would hold water, control pollution, and filter systems.

Silverstein said without healthy seagrass beds, the Bay already is in a "fragile state." But it could prevent bad nutrients from entering the waterways by diverting the dirty water, perhaps into open urban areas (which the Environmental Protection Agency has been studying).

Lisa Spadafina, appointed earlier this year as the top official for Miami-Dade's Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM) team, said some of the necessary, immediate ways to prevent problems in Biscayne Bay are not opening manhole covers, report non-working pump stations, and simply getting the word out to be cautious about run-offs.

"The long-term game has a lot of moving parts," she said.

The eyes will now be on the thermometer and the impending rainfall.

"I was very encouraged and inspired by this conversation," Mayor Cava said, who asked for a follow-up meeting once all the notes from Wednesday's meeting were handed to her to analyze. "... We're doing a lot of great things already, but I want us to push forward. There's no time to wait ... we have to say, 'What can we do now?' "

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