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Biscayne Bay Is Gasping for Life, Claims Grand Jury Report

August 12, 2019 - 8:00am
Biscayne Bay, Miami
Biscayne Bay, Miami

Biscayne Bay, known in Miami-Dade as "the crown jewel of our environment," is "at a tipping point" and gasping for life, according to a 33-page grand jury report released last week. “Without corrective action, the declining quality of this body of water may become irreversible.”

The grand jury, convened by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, began its work last November.

WLRN and The Miami Herald report that the document warns a myriad of factors threaten the health of the bay and the tourism economy it helps support. "Everything from the aging wastewater infrastructure of Miami-Dade County to private septic tanks, the Turkey Point nuclear power plant and the continued presence of single-use plastics" are named as contributors to the Bay's current health.

And that, claims news sources, is just the list of things local and state officials might be able to address. There are other factors.

The report notes, “The entire balance is further threatened by rising sea levels.”

The report notes several incidents of untreated wastewater leaking into the Bay, including one last December, at the height of the tourist season, when pipes burst, sending thousands of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay. The county issued health warnings, urging residents and visitors not to swim. And this past February, "some 750,000 gallons of untreated wastewater spewed into the Oleta River, and from there into Biscayne Bay." Another health warning followed, Thagainst swimming in the area.

The biggest culprit is the Miami-Dade's aging water and sewer infrastructure. In 2014, a federal judge ordered Miami-Dade County to make $1.6 billion in repairs to the faulty system over the following 15 years. That's BILLION with a "b".

The state of Florida already lists Biscayne Bay an “impaired” body of water. Which is why Miami-Dade has created a Biscayne Bay Task Force to advise the county board of commissioners and county mayor about how to help repair it.

These are the recommendations the grand jury made:

-- Increased signage urging people to dispose of their trash properly so it doesn't ultimately end up in the Bay, or otherwise just ramping up public education

-- That Miami-Dade County and other municipalities install better grates on street drainage infrastructure, and regularly clean the grates

-- That the state of Florida pass a statewide ban on plastic bags

-- That Miami-Dade County set up a plastic bag and plastic bottle fee and/or buyback program, placing a 5- to 10-cent value on the products to discourage use.

WLRN says Coral Gables passed a plastic bag ban in 2017, and Palm Beach did the same in June. Bal Harbour, a seaside community, passed an ordinance banning all single-use plastics in April. Also, a number of cities like Miami Beach have passed bans on plastic straws. During the last legislative session the Florida Legislature passed a bill that would prevent cities from being able to pass their own plastic straw bans, but it was vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. In his veto letter, DeSantis wrote that those bans have “not frustrated any state policy or harmed the state’s interest.”

Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, filed a bill earlier this month that would ban plastic straws from the entire state, suggesting “paper, pasta, sugarcane, wood, or bamboo” could be adequate.

The report notes sea level rise is having a profound effect on septic tanks. Properties not connected to the county's water and sewer system run off septic tanks, and as the sea level rises, so do the groundwater levels. 

More than 56,000 of an estimated 105,000 properties that use septic tanks in the county leak sewage during storms and the wet season, according to a county report that indicated the problem was partly because of these conditions. A costly business. The grand jury recommended all properties be moved off of septic systems, but estimated it could cost up to $3.3 billion to connect them all to the central water and sewage system.

Other major issues outlined in the report are an overflow of nutrients into the bay by agriculture and stormwater runoff; a study published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration earlier this month found the increase in nutrients is threatening to change the Bay’s ecosystem entirely. 

The report claims another major point is the increased salinization of the Bay and the Biscayne Aquifer caused by canals meant to cool water from Florida Power and Light’s Turkey Point nuclear facility. The process creates over-salted water that has formed a “plume” that “extends several miles beyond the western boundary” of the power plant, according to the report. “This saltwater plume constitutes a serious threat to the source of our drinking water.”

The grand jury's recommendation? That FPL do “whatever they can” to make sure the salinity levels in the cooling canals are brought down. WLRN and the Herald say the company is under a consent decree with Miami-Dade County to meet standards by 2021, and the company assures it is on track to meet that goal.

The grand jury doesn't mince words. In order to head off a worst case scenario, it warns, the county will have to be all hands on board from government agencies, officials, as well as the general public.

Reads the report, “As we express our love for Biscayne Bay’s beauty, marine life and its ecology, we too often shy away from our daily actions that may be slowly strangling this thing we say we cherish.”

Biscayne Bay's problems go on and on. What also didn't help the Bay was a $205 million Port Miami channel expansion that left a swath of dead coral and led to a legal battle over damage. 

And, adding insult to injury, a study out this month from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looking at 20 years of data on pollution has found a new risk threatening Biscayne Bay: "regime change."

According to the data, parts of the Bay, "one of the only places on the planet inhabited by all seven species of seagrass, are gradually filling with chlorophyll and phosphorus. The pollution coincided with a cascade of worsening conditions, from spreading seagrass die-offs to persistent algae blooms." Read the story here

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