FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Suzee Bailey said she moved to Fort Lauderdale about eight years ago because she loved the idea of living close to its beaches and boating canals. The city is home to The Hugh Taylor Birch State Park’s trails and lagoon.
Bailey loves being outdoors. When paddleboarding became popular, it became her favorite pastime. She said it’s therapeutic for both her body and mind. It has also given her a front-row seat to the effects of pollution.
“It really saddens me to see the decline of our waterways. When I first moved here the water was much more clear. We have the lights underneath to attract the tarpon and when we first moved here I used to call it my private aquarium because we used to have all these fish back there,” Bailey said. “I got out now and there’s no fish. It’s just so sad.”
With the series of sewage spills, Bailey has been worried about the safety of the city’s recreational waterways. Most recently, she has been following how the city’s new monitoring program was at risk over a disagreement about the use of social media to report high levels of bacteria.
“We know there’s a problem,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis said about the bacteria in some waterways, but he added that there is a solution on the way because instead of fining the city for the release of the sewage spills, state officials “agreed to allow us to plow that money right back into restoration.”
Trantalis said Fort Lauderdale contracted Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit organization, as part of that effort. Rachel Silverstein, Miami Waterkeeper’s director, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the safety guidelines used in the monitoring program, which tests for the Enterococcus, a fecal indicator bacteria
“It’s bacteria known to be associated with sewage,” Silverstein said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s sewage in the area but they’re often tied.”
Silverstein said Miami Waterkeeper and city staff identified 10 sites to test regularly where the community is really using the recreational water. In the contract, the city and Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit environmental organization, agreed to share updates on the organization’s website and app.
“These tests are just to give us an ongoing analysis of what the status of our water quality is,” Trantalis said.
During a commission meeting on Thursday, Trantalis shamed Miami Waterkeeper for also reporting the findings on Twitter and on Instagram. He said on Tuesday that the motive behind his disapproval had nothing to do with hiding information from the public.
“What concerned the city was that we hired them to help us, not to turn around and weaponize the information to make the city look bad,” Trantalis said.
Silverstein said the intent was not malicious. She said sharing the information publicly is an important piece of the restoration work and she thinks that’s why the city contracted Miami Waterkeeper, which has a platform to be able to share the data gathered with the community.
“We are just sharing that information with the public so they can be informed and make their own recreation decisions,” Silverstein said. “When we get the information we post it on our website, we share it with city staff, we post it on a free app.”
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City officials said they have reviewed the contract and have decided they will continue working with Miami Waterkeeper. Trantalis said he trusts the organization will continue to provide the city with the information needed to focus on solutions. Bailey just hopes the monitoring program with Miami Waterkeeper continues and the city’s restoration project is successful.
“I’m hoping the city gives them time and has some patience with what they need to find out here and I’m hoping we can all work together to move forward with the restoration process because it isn’t going to happen overnight but it needs a team to get done,” Bailey said.