Miami’s water quality has improved during coronavirus pandemic, researcher says

Researcher hopes evidence on environmental impact changes human behavior

The coronavirus has presented researchers like Elizabeth Kelly with a unique opportunity.

The coronavirus has presented researchers like Elizabeth Kelly with a unique opportunity -- an unplanned experiment to see what effect less human activity has on our beaches and waterways. Kelly specializes in environmental microbiology and regularly samples Miami Dade County’s recreational bodies of water to check for the presence of fecal indicator bacteria.

Kelly works for the Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit organization that focuses on ensuring public policies support swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water for all. Over the weekend, Kelly collected samples from five sites, Morningside, the Miami River near Little Havana, Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, Biscayne Bay near Brickell and RASMAS beach on Virginia Key.

“It’s an experiment, research on its own, to find out what happens when we are not allowed to recreate in the water as we normally do,” Kelly said.

The beaches and marinas have been closed for about six weeks. Rachel Silverstein, the executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, said the samples showed low bacteria levels. She was especially surprised by the water quality of the Miami River.

“I am not sure that we really ever had samples from the Miami River that have shown bacteria levels that low,” Silverstein said.

The highest bacterial count was in Biscayne Bay, Silverstein said, adding more testing is needed to establish a correlation between human activity and the quality of water.

The Florida Department of Health also recently tested water samples from Key Biscayne to Golden Beach as part of the Florida Healthy Beaches program. The samples also showed good water quality at almost all of the beaches.

Samir Elmir, of the Florida Department of Health in Miami-Dade County (Local 10 News)

There haven’t been any sewage spills in the past six weeks. It has been a dry spring so there has been a lot less storm drain runoff.

Silverstein believes less rain has also played a role in the low bacteria levels, but doesn’t downplay the impact less traffic has had on our waters. The few boaters still out there have reported more close encounters with sea life.

“I am hoping that connection lasts and that we really see the impact that we have on the environment by taking this pause,” Silverstein said.

For regular updates on the water quality around you, download the free Swim Guide app available on Google Play and the Apple Store.

About the Author:

Louis Aguirre is an Emmy-award winning journalist who anchors weekday newscasts and serves as WPLG Local 10’s Environmental Advocate.