MIAMI, Fla. – Scott Stripling is a volunteer for the Miami Surfrider Foundation, an environmental non-profit group established by surfers who want to protect oceans and beaches.
“I love the outdoors. I love the environment," Stripling said. "When I started surfing, that just blew my whole world. I love the ocean.”
Stripling is one of 25 volunteers in Miami-Dade County. Every week, he takes samples from oceans and beaches to check for the presence of Enterococci, a fecal indicator bacteria in the water that is extremely harmful if swallowed, or if it makes contact with open skin wound.
“I walk out into about waist-deep water, collect the sample, cinch it up [and] then deliver it to a lab,” Stripling said.
Seth Bloomgarden, the chairman of the Miami Surfrider Foundation, which was chartered in 1997, said polluted water is making swimmers sick.
“No one is letting them know what’s happening out there,” Bloomgarden said.
Volunteers said the fecal indicator is showing up more and more. Records show there has been an average of 25 beach advisories a year in Miami-Dade County since 2017. The count last year was 39.
“Twenty percent of the Thursdays you come to the beach, it could be contaminated with this fecal bacteria," Stripling said. “We have a major problem we need to resolve.”
Old pipes are breaking in Miami-Dade’s aging sewer system and spilling millions of gallons of raw sewage into our backyard. There was one this week, and there were four in the past six months near Oleta River State Park. At least one was from a pipe that the county should have replaced years ago.
Bloomgarden said he has been keeping score.
“We are seeing it happen on a regular basis,” Bloomgarden said. “Our beaches are filled with poop. This is a recipe for disaster.”
In 2019, the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department reported 108 sewer-line breaks; mishaps during construction projects were to blame for 29 of them. The consequence: More than five million gallons of waster water spilled.
Kelly Cox, general council for Miami Waterkeeper, a watchdog non-profit that advocates for protecting South Florida’s waterways, said that the problem has been ongoing for decades.
“The spills are inevitable and when they do occur we can see ... spikes in that fecal indicator bacteria level in our nearshore levels,” Cox said.
The pollution doesn’t just come from sewer leaks. Leaking septic tanks, fertilizer runoffs, climate change and the massive amounts of seaweed and sargassum are also creating the perfect storm for this bacteria to thrive.
“Sewage spills are not only to blame for this but they are certainly a critical piece of the puzzle,” Cox said.
Environmentalists aren’t the only ones sounding the alarm. In August, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office released a stinging 33-page grand jury report with a dire warning to local leaders and elected officials about Biscayne Bay, a crown jewel that is in a very precarious state.
“Biscayne Bay is at a tipping point,” the report says. "Without corrective action, the declining quality of this body of water may become irreversible.”
Daniella Levine Cava, the Miami-Dade County Commissioner who represents District 8, is very concerned about the report’s findings.
“It’s our tourism, it’s our economy, it’s our lifeline," Levine Cava said. "Just imagine South Florida without clean water! It cannot exist.”
Levine Cava sits on the county’s infrastructure and capital improvements committee and has been fighting to protect our environment.
“We are not moving with enough urgency," Levine Cava said. "Everything that you are talking about right now tells us that our bay or ocean, our economy, our health is at risk.”
The Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department is under the gun. The number of breaks has actually decreased.
“We’re working tirelessly to decrease the impact to our community and our environment,” said Jennifer Messemer-Skold, a spokeswoman for the department.
After being sued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012, the department reported it is now halfway done complying with a federally mandated $1.8 billion plan to upgrade the county’s pipes and it is also investing millions more to upgrade the whole system.
Messmer-Skold said the department made 988 proactive repairs to its water lines to avoid water main breaks. Despite the precautionary measures, water main breaks still happen, and they’re not always addressed right away.
In 2017, there was a massive leak just a mile off Fisher Island. It came from one of two massive ocean outfall pipes from the Central District plant in Virginia Key that every day pumps 143 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into the ocean. It had been leaking for over a year before it was fixed.
There has been no evidence to shows the outflow is causing the beach contamination. Still, the state of Florida has now banned this practice. By 2025, all Florida counties must stop the daily pumping of wastewater into the ocean.
About a day after Surfrider volunteers took samples from 10 Miami-Dade County beaches, a laboratory director helped Stripling to record the week’s results.
“Cells that light up in this infrared, the light blue, are positive cells that have live fecal bacteria," Stripling said about the results of examining a water sample from Crandon Park in Virginia Key. “These are all positive cells and this is going to be a high level of bacteria contamination.”
The testing showed only one beach had a high concentration of bacteria. Environmentalists haven’t lost hope. Right now Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department must, by law, disclose when there is a major spillage and issue no swim advisories for bodies of water affected.
There are no public advisories for beaches that test positive for fecal indicator bacteria. The Florida Department of Health tests area beaches on Monday and Surfrider activists test on Thursdays. Miami Waterkeeper activists test all other recreational bodies of water.
“If we take this on from multiple fronts, we can save Biscayne Bay,” Cox said.
BEHIND-THE-SCENES: Louis Aguirre meets with Scott Stripling