Clouds of murky water near a stormwater pump at the west edge of South Beach has again alarmed residents and raised questions of the improved drainage system’s impact on Biscayne Bay.
The pumps at 10th and 14th streets and West Avenue have been running since last fall, and the city’s leaders championed their effectiveness when the streets stayed dry during last year’s king tide. But residents have noted cloudy water near the seawall when pumps push water out into the bay.
Similar images of a black cloud circulated last December, when city officials said someone at the city forgot to turn the 10th Street pump on, storm water backed up and then a large concentration of sediment was released in the water when the pump was turned on.
In January, results from a study by scientists from Florida International University showed the thousands of gallons of drained water may be contributing to a spike in pollutants that could feed toxic algae blooms. City officials said the filtration system installed with the pumps meets environmental regulation standards, and they will continue to monitor the impact.
But folks along West Avenue have raised their eyebrows again, and as elections season heats up in Miami Beach, candidates are taking advantage of the chance to campaign.
Richard Conlin, a real estate agent and personal trainer who lives in Southgate Towers at 900 West Ave., has been posting pictures and videos of the sandy-colored cloud that forms when water is pumped out at 10th Street.
Conlin said he has complained to the city for months about what he calls nasty, smelly pollution in the bay, without a satisfying response. His images were featured in a post this week by political blogger Elaine de Valle and he has posted to a Facebook group of residents called “Clean Up Miami Beach,” which is run by current commission candidate Michael DeFilippi.
“It’s starting to get a lot of attention now,” Conlin told the Miami Herald on Thursday.
On Tuesday, City Manager Jimmy Morales sent a letter to the City Commission to discuss concerns over mounting complaints. He said the darker water is caused by pressure and gas bubbles causing sediment to rise and form temporary clouds, which could look like something worse from a distance. “Turbidity barriers” are supposed to be installed soon to limit the size of the sediment plume.
“Let me first say that at no point have we been ignoring this,” he said. “For the past few days, I’ve had Public Works and Environmental staff out there. We will be having the water tested shortly, and we are taking interim measures like installing turbidity barriers.”
Morales went out to the 10th Street pump Tuesday with public works employees, including two divers, to watch the pumps in action. He said the sediment rises while water is pumped out, and the bay water clears up once the sediment is given a chance to settle. The only debris they found in the water were small leaves and a few small plastic bags or shreds of bags that made it through the filtering system.
“No bottles, no cans or other debris,” he said. “The vortex is clearly effective in catching this stuff.”
Morales noted that divers did find plenty of cans and bottles further away from the outfall, closer to the docks. He said boaters and people at the marina are to blame.
Mayor Philip Levine, who has championed the pump plan, sent a letter to residents Wednesday saying the city has hired an environmental services firm to sample the water for petroleum derivatives.
The city expects results from the firm, Orlando-based E Sciences Inc., by next week.
“The City understands the our natural capital is critical to our economy and our quality of life,” said Levine, who intends to run for reelection this year. “We will continue to monitor this location and the water quality of our waterways.”
On Thursday, Miami Beach workers cleaned the filtering system at the 10th Street pump station and circulated pictures of heaps of plastic bottles, soda cans and other garbage that is captured by the cleaning chamber. This chamber captures garbage collected by the storm water drainage system and gets cleaned every three months.
Conlin said that in his months of watching the pumps work, he’s seen polystyrene, oily water and garbage bags in the water.
“I believe it’s nothing more than damage control,” he said, of the city’s response. “It’s an election year.”
Indeed, several candidates vying for commission seats quickly rushed to stump on the issue through emails and social media.
Regardless of the political jockeying, scientists are keeping a close eye on Biscayne Bay’s water quality as the pumps program progresses. The Beach is pressing on with a three- to five-year plan to install around 70 pumps throughout the island at a cost of $300 to $500 million. Amid the push to keep the Beach dry from rising tides, environmental concerns abound.
Tere Florin, spokeswoman for the Miami-Dade Department of Regulatory & Economic Resources, said in an email the county is aware of the issue, and is conducting weekly inspections and working with the city.
“We have received citizen inquiries and have conducted additional inspections in response to each inquiry,” she said. “While we have not witnessed the discharge, we continue to work with the City and to monitor this project.”
Henry O. Briceño, the hydrologist at Florida International University who oversaw the study earlier this year and is working with other researchers and the city on sea-level rise issues, said on Thursday that while the city’s filtering system catches larger objects and thicker sediments, finer particles can still make it through to cloud the water.
“They have some traps, but they do not remove all the fine particles, which are the ones that make that water look like milk,” he said.
He explained that the cloudier water can hinder the sunlight needed by marine life deeper in the water, and some of those finer particles likely carry unwanted bacteria.
While the city deserves credit for keeping its streets from flooding, Briceño said, minimizing impact on the Biscayne Bay is an important challenge. And effective solutions like water treatment are not cheap.
“They are costly,” he said. “That’s what sea-level rise is bringing. A new normal.”