Polluted waterway on the mend in Miami

The Seybold Canal, part of Wagner Creek, merges with the Miami River near Northwest Seventh Avenue. Long considered one of the Miami’s most polluted waterways, the creek may finally be getting cleaned up. River advocates and Miami officials say they've lined up enough money to dredge and clean the creek.
The Seybold Canal, part of Wagner Creek, merges with the Miami River near Northwest Seventh Avenue. Long considered one of the Miami’s most polluted waterways, the creek may finally be getting cleaned up. River advocates and Miami officials say they've lined up enough money to dredge and clean the creek. Miami Herald Staff

On a postcard-perfect winter morning, harbor pilot Charlie Hand steers his boat up the crowded Seybold Canal, a 2,000-foot stretch of Wagner Creek dredged and straightened a century ago, scooping up discarded plastic bags.

He motors around docked shrimp boats, floating bottles and, gingerly, four manatees. Farther up the creek near the busy Veteran’s Hospital, in full view of an indifferent manatee, a man squats near the bank.

Considered one of South Florida’s most polluted waterways, the creek that winds through the heart of Miami-Dade County, past car repair shops, hospitals and jails, has long been used as Miami’s toilet, filled with fish too toxic to eat. Pollution has come in every form, from humans to machines, going back decades.

At the creek’s worst, after dioxin was found in 2003, Miami posted signs warning that any fish caught in the waterway were unsafe to eat. As recently as April, tests at one spot detected fecal matter more than 200 times higher than allowed levels.

But times are changing for the stinky little creek fed by the Biscayne Aquifer that once connected the Allapattah prairie to the Miami River and Biscayne Bay beyond. This month the Miami River Commission announced it had finally secured enough money to begin a $20 million clean-up job. A request for bids will go out next month, said commission chairman Horacio Stuart Aguirre.

If all goes as planned, the city will secure an additional low-interest state loan so work can begin at the end of the year, said Assistant City Manager Alice Bravo.

“You help the environment a little bit and it’s amazing how nature revives itself,” said Hand, who has spotted dolphins in the canal from the kitchen window of his Spring Garden house.

While that’s good news, the cost is now more than double the original estimate a decade ago, largely due to the dioxin, a toxic compound hiding in the creek’s muddy bottom. And progress has been slow, even for a large-scale public works project with multiple government managers.

“Procrastination is expensive,” said Aguirre, who was first appointed to the state-mandated river commission by then Gov. Charlie Crist. “When it stinks, everybody’s upset. But unless it explodes and the dioxin coagulates with uranium, it’s not a big issue.”

The creek also had to get in line behind the Miami River, itself an environmental mess after being dredged and filled repeatedly in the last century to provide flood protection and make way for growing commercial interests.

It’s been a long fight, say Hand and others who attended countless meetings and repeatedly pestered city officials for help. But they’re hopeful the end is in sight.

“Spring Gardeners don’t give up,” said Gioia DeCarlo, president of the Spring Garden Civic Association.

Hand moved to his tidy yellow house in the creekside neighborhood in 2000 because it was the cheapest Miami waterfront property he could find. But over the years, he grew fond of the authenticity of the old working waterway, filled with commercial fishermen and their weather-beaten boats. And the neighborhood’s leafy streets make the nearby cement factory, busy garment district, solid waste facility and hodgepodge of industrial businesses more tolerable.

That wasn’t always the case. A century ago, Hand’s neighborhood was on the brink of becoming Miami’s premier suburb. Originally, the area housed one of the city’s first tourist attractions featuring a 300-pound alligator wrestler. Back when Hialeah and Miami Springs were known as the Humbugus and Pokey-Moonshine sections, Wagner Creek regularly breached its banks to flood nearby roads in the rainy season.

“Tussocks of muck and sawgrass, some of them three and four feet in diameter, used to float down the creek when the glades flooded, and sometimes there’d be a rattlesnake coiled up in the center of one, getting a free ride,” according to an account by Hoyt Frazure in HistoryMiami archives.

In 1919, baker John Seybold purchased the land, straightened the creek from 11th Street to where it met the Miami River and began building what he hoped would be the city’s new grand riverfront neighborhood.

Then the 1926 hurricane hit, ending Florida’s first land boom, followed by the Great Depression.

As the city grew and the Miami River became an artery for all forms of industry, from the marine trade to the drug trade, Wagner Creek and the Seybold Canal fell into disrepair. By 1998, the Miami River was in such poor shape that state legislators, following two scathing grand jury reports, created the Miami River Commission to act as a watchdog and kick-start stalled clean-up efforts.

The river, which handles about $4 billion in cargo annually, had suffered from decades of failed flood control measures and stormwater run-off silting its bottom. An $80 million dredge project overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed five miles of mud from the river bottom.

“It was really after the river got dredged that everyone realized [the creek] needed to be dredged,” said Spencer Crowley, Miami-Dade County Commissioner for the Florida Inland Navigational District (FIND).

But the creek turned out to be a bigger challenge after tests showed the bottom laced with dioxin — as thick as 10 feet in places. For most of its modern life, the four-foot-deep creek had been treated like a stormwater ditch rather than a fresh, spring fed creek. Over the years, as saltwater migrated inland from the reconstructed Miami River, it turned saltier and saltier. A 2011 survey found numerous stormwater pipes dumping into the creek — by law property owners must keep stormwater on site or route it to the aquifer. And a 2006 state survey found numerous suspects for its pollution, from improper sewage connections to run-off from the mostly paved urban landscape.

From the Seybold Canal, the creek winds through the health care district, behind offices and a Lincoln Marti daycare center, Section 8 housing, then underground past a cement factory, the Allapattah produce markets and the site of an old municipal incinerator believed to be the source of the dioxin.

The mud to be removed is so noxious that it must be dried and trucked out of state to a special dump.

“The problem is this creek is living with the sins of the past,” Crowley said.

FIND has pledged $3 million to the clean-up effort and hopes the work has a cascading affect for the whole neighborhood, he said.

“You’re gonna see the water a lot cleaner and clearer. You’re going to see more manatees. You’re going to see people really able to appreciate the beauty of this area,” he said. “Hopefully, that’s going to result in better things happening on the upland side.”

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