Miami Beach attacks 'sloppy science' on human waste bacteria in bay

Miami Beach city leaders — smarting over a study that found water gushing from massive new pumps during king tides over the past two years carried bacteria from human waste — on Wednesday grilled the team of scientists who authored the report.

“If you do a study right in front of a tail pipe, those are the kinds of results you get,” said Mayor Philip Levine, who last month accused one of the researchers of trying to strong-arm the city into paying him to test water.

At a May 18 commission meeting, Levine issued a blistering attack after the Miami Herald published findings first presented at a February ocean science conference in New Orleans and reported in the online journal Eos. Levine and the commission ordered the city attorney to explore measures to protect the city from “sloppy science combined with sloppy journalism.” City Manager Jimmy Morales also said he called Florida International University to complain about one of the scientists, geochemist Henry Briceño, who said he was later ordered to review his findings with supervisors.

In the tense debate over climate change, scientists have been routinely attacked for warning about the looming risks. But this backlash comes from a city that has been praised for its pioneering effort to adapt to sea rise. Some scientists worry the city’s response could have a chilling effect on researchers.

“They have such a serious problem and I understand that no elected official wants this as their prime focus. They all have other dreams for our community. But this is the reality that we have to deal with openly and honestly,” said University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless, who Levine also singled out at last month’s meeting, accusing him of making dire predictions to sell books. Wanless hasn’t published a book since a field guide in 1995.

“I should have a book out but I don’t,’’ he said.

The study, a joint effort by researchers from FIU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern University, examined water in Biscayne Bay during the 2014 and 2015 king tides to better understand impacts and potential pollution from flooding caused by sea rise on coastal communities. The team called it a “Case Study of Miami Beach with Implications for Sea Level Rise and Public Health.” Miami Beach is among the few cities to aggressively take on the challenge of sea rise, investing up to $500 million in pumps and infrastructure to keep the city dry.

“This is a very preliminary, small-scale study: four days over two years,” NOAA molecular biologist Chris Sinigalliano said. “We don’t know if it’s typical all the time. But we believe it is.”

Under projections issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, tidal flooding in the region would dramatically jump from about six times a year to 380 times a year by 2045, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

What’s in that water is cause for concern, scientists say. Unlike stormwater from rainfall, flooding from high tides pushes up through the ground, collecting pollution as it moves. In Miami Beach, a city riddled with aging sewer pipes and crowded with dogs, that water can come into contact with waste, not unlike coastal cities all around the country.

Initial results from the team’s water samples collected near the city’s new pumps in 2014 and 2015 found elevated levels of enterococci, a bacteria measured to detect the presence of waste. Many samples exceeded state guidelines for recreational waters. To determine just what kind of waste the water contained and whether it was new or old — enterococci can survive for years and come from a number of hosts, including human and animal — the team conducted DNA testing.

The DNA tests, Sinigalliano said, found some water contained high levels of human bacteria that had come into contact with raw sewage within the last five days. The results raise the question of what will happen to bay waters in the future if sea rise forces the city’s pumps to work more often to remove floodwater. Scientists say the bay waters are safe now because pollution concentrations dilute quickly. But the impact could be a growing concern when Miami Beach adds dozens more pumps or, further in the future, when other coastal cities build similar systems.

“We all need to recognize these flood waters are contaminated,” said Sinigalliano, who suggested the pumps improve options for treating the water, even though it may be costly. “All of this flood water has gotten mixed together and all that combined pollution is now being pumped up.”

The team’s findings prompted the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management to also sample water, which produced similar results. At outfalls in the bay at 10th and 14th streets, enterococci readings exceeded state criteria more than a dozen times between December 2015 and January 2016. State guidelines for recreational waters set the limit at 35 colony-forming units (CFUs) of bacteria for every 3.4 ounces of water. County inspectors found levels as high as 24,000 CFUs in early January.

The county repeated the sampling in late January, including sites on the mainland side of the bay and in the Miami River for comparison. The samples showed levels shot up during high tides on both sides of the bay, whether the water flowed from gravity pipes or Miami Beach’s pumps. Some samples reached concentrations beyond what the tests could measure.

Miami Beach was supposed to devise a monitoring plan when the county permitted the pumps. But Wednesday DERM spokeswoman Tere Florin said the plan was still not complete. She also said the county is now working with the city to determine the source of the bacteria and come up with steps to improve water quality.

“It’s what we heard before. When you turn those pumps on, we see those really high levels of bacteria,” said Larry Brand, a University of Miami marine biologist at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science who has studied algae blooms in the bay and examined the DERM findings for the Herald.

“The higher the coliform or eterococci you see in that water, that indicates the higher input of sewage there and therefore a higher exposure to potential disease,” he said. “The numbers I see, I certainly won’t want to go swimming in that water.”

Combined, the water quality tests showed mixed impacts from the pumps. Some bacteria levels were higher when they were running, sometimes they were lower. Sinigalliano said that could be because the faster the water is removed by pumps, the less time it has to soak up pollution — but either way, he said, the concentrations were often over the criteria for recreational waters .

At last month’s meeting, Commissioner Michael Grieco called the Herald’s story on the study a “hit job” and on Wednesday repeatedly questioned Briceño about a proposal to monitor water quality he submitted to the city last year.

“You asked for $675,000 and we said no and then there was a bunch of hit pieces that came out,” Grieco said.

Briceño acknowledged he had prepared the proposal — but only at the request of the city. His $669,000 three-year proposal explained that conditions produced by king tides could become the norm if sea levels rise. After not receiving a response, he emailed staff in July 2015 and offered to find money for the work.

“If the City of MB is not interested or has no funds, please let me know. I'd try to tap other sources of financing to do the necessary baseline and monitoring work,” he wrote.

Briceño, who began sampling water in October 2013 as part of an FIU research project, has been talking with various city officials off and on through most of the testing. In December 2015, Capt. Dan Kipnis, chair of the city’s Marine and Waterfront Protection Authority, asked Briceño to make a presentation and never suspected he was angling for money.

“Henry should not be in the middle of this,” he said. “Henry’s done a service for the bay and all of South Florida.”

City Attorney Raul Aguila also demanded a retraction from the Herald in a six-page letter, again repeating the implication that the study was merely an attempt to gain funding and calling the findings “foundationless.” The paper declined. On Wednesday, Levine said the paper owed city residents an apology for inflaming fears about water quality and asked commissioners to pass a resolution “that the Miami Herald, encourages them to print both these quotes: that pumps do not pollute and the pumps are part of the solution.”

Commissioner Kristin Rosen Gonzalez, who invited Briceño to make a presentation following the May meeting, repeatedly apologized to the scientists and The Herald.

“We may not like the outcome, but I will tell you this resulted in a lot of positive outcome for our city,” she said. “I think what we did at the last meeting was shameful.”

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