Environment

It’s time to declare a state of emergency for Biscayne Bay, advocates say

Biscayne Bay is in a health crisis. It’s gasping for air. It’s at a tipping point. It’s doomed.

Environmentalists have been sounding these alarms for at least two decades, warning that the bay’s placid turquoise waters and rich marine life would soon succumb to contamination from failing septic tanks and stormwater runoff, plastic pollution, overfishing, a warming ocean and the ever-growing pressure of development.

Now, Biscayne Bay lovers — from fishing guides who have seen grouper populations plummet in recent years to scientists watching in disbelief as seagrass meadows vanish, and environmental regulators who have ordered studies to understand what exactly is going on — agree on one thing: Enough of studies and research and proposals. It’s time to declare a state of emergency for Biscayne Bay.

“We are going to keep working hard to make sure that our bay survives and thrives,” Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told an audience of scientists, activists and policy makers who gathered Friday at Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay campus to address the bay’s dire predicament.

The proposed emergency declaration was one of the results of the second edition of the Biscayne Bay Marine Health Summit, a one-day powwow of citizens who are concerned about the troubles afflicting the bay, and elected officials and policy makers who can do something to fix them. Other ideas included the creation of a Biscayne Bay authority to focus on restoration efforts, the establishment of regional water quality goals and pollution reduction targets and the increase of sewer fees to help upgrade Miami-Dade’s failing infrastructure.

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Since the 1970s, several efforts -- from multi-agency studies to a national park management plan -- have focused on identifying the issues affecting the health of Biscayne Bay and designing solutions. Courtesy Irela Bagué

Recommendations on infrastructure and public works, governmental policy, research needs, and education and outreach will be used by a Miami-Dade Biscayne Bay task force that was created earlier this year to tackle the bay’s worsening conditions. The panel is expected to present concrete actions by January.

The health of Biscayne Bay has drawn new scrutiny in recent months after a Miami-Dade grand jury report and studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration painted a gloomy picture of Miami’s beloved bay. Meanwhile, Biscayne National Park is working on a new Fishery Management Plan as some fish populations are on the verge of collapse.

Two years ago, a massive seagrass die-off in the Tuttle Bay basin was a loud wake-up call that reignited calls for tougher corrective measures and more efficient enforcement of regulations to protect the bay. Dan Kipnis, a fishing boat captain and climate advocate, recalls how the water in the northern protected basin between the Julia Tuttle and 79th Street causeways used to be pristine, making the area a popular spot for snorkeling. “The water here was so clear we could see the grass on the bottom and an abundance of fish,” Kipnis said. But in just a few years the seven species of seagrass that used to cover the basin’s bottom withered and died, turning the water into a murky and lifeless soup.

Scientists have pointed to known factors that have worsened water quality across Biscayne Bay: old and leaky septic tanks that have failed in increasing numbers, polluting the bay with nutrients that fuel algae blooms that in turn reduce the amount of light reaching seagrass beds; storm and wastewater flowing from dirty canals filled with high levels of phosphorus, which exacerbates algae production; dredging and increased sediment from Miami’s growing port and busier ship traffic.

A massive pumping system installed by Miami Beach in 2017 to deal with sea level rise was also considered a suspect. That year the city started to pump untreated stormwater into the bay, using a system that filtered out large debris and oil but didn’t treat the water for fertilizers and other waste like animal poop.

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Biscayne Bay has lost more than 80 percent of its seagrass meadows and a coral disease that started off Virginia Key in 2014 has reached Key West. Caitlin Granfield

Stormwater runoff and leaky septic tanks have long been a problem, but in recent years more of the 108,000 units in Miami-Dade have failed because of sea level rise. The county decided to take a closer look last year and warned in a November study that by 2040, 64 percent — or more than 67,000 units — could have issues every year. That’s because septic tanks need a layer of dirt underneath to do the final filtration work, capturing the solids and returning the liquid waste back to the aquifer. In South Florida, there’s not that much dirt between the homes above ground and the water below, and as the sea level rises, the groundwater is being pushed even higher. It’s wetting the layer of dirt that is supposed to be dry. Wastewater doesn’t filter efficiently in soggy soil, so it comes out.

Another eye-opener on the health of the bay was a recent study by NOAA looking at water quality parameters between 1995 and 2014. Researchers concluded that Biscayne Bay may be facing a “regime shift” as its lush seagrass beds are gradually being smothered by thick algae that are being fed by rising nutrient levels in the water. The study looked at chlorophyll — an indication of the presence of algae blooms in the bay — and phosphorus, and concluded that the bay may be changing from a seagrass-dominated ecosystem to an algae one.

“We have a lot of data on what’s happening in the bay and these changes we’ve observed in this recent study are very alarming,” said Chris Kelble, a co-author of the study and oceanographer at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Lab on Virginia Key.

Last month, a grand jury convened by Miami-Dade’s State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle issued an alarming report saying the damage to the “crown jewel of our environment” may soon become irreversible. The report targeted a host of factors hurting the bay, from the aging wastewater infrastructure to the use of disposable plastics and the cooling canals at the Turkey Point nuclear plant.

The plant, operated by Florida Power & Light, uses an outdated cooling system that’s producing an underground plume of saltwater that is leaking into Biscayne Bay. That’s threatening not only the health of the ecosystem but also drinking water supplies, as the Biscayne Bay aquifer sits just below the surface.

Follow Adriana on Twitter @AdriBras

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