MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – It’s the first week of August, and Biscayne Bay is breathing.
It was this time last year when the bay experienced its first-ever massive fish kill, where more than 27,000 fish and marine animals from 56 different species died in the northern bay.
“It is much better this year than where it was last year right now,” says Dr. Todd Crowl, the executive director of Florida International University’s Institute of Environment and one of the leading scientists urgently working to save Biscayne Bay.
It’s hard to forget last August when the northern bay experienced an unprecedented, catastrophic event.
For five days, from North Miami to Virginia Key, thousands of dead fish and other marine animals began washing up on the shores or were seen floating dead on the water while others gasped for breath.
“All of a sudden we looked around us and we could see that we were in a sea of dead fish,” Morningside resident Kathryn Myksel says.
It was exactly what scientists had been warning about for years — too many land-based pollutants flowing freely into the bay, killing meadows of seagrass and allowing algae to bloom and take over, depleting the water of oxygen.
“The oxygen levels dropped to 1, and when that happens things suffocate,” Crowl said. “Basically what they saw were suffocating fish.”
Rachel Silverstein is the executive director of Miami Waterkeeper the clean water watchdog organization that was one of the first to mobilize, test the water and respond.
“To see sort of the worst-case scenario happening before our eyes was devastating for us,” she says. “We had been working so hard to prevent this moment.
“It’s become clear that north Biscayne Bay wasn’t having enough monitoring, and so when the fish kill happened, we were almost blind.”
Since last year’s fish kill, FIU’s Institute of Environment now has two research buoys permanently deployed in the north bay, sending real-time data back via text messages.
“So I get a text from the buoy if it’s reading low oxygen,” Crowl says.
It is a 24-7 operation.
One buoy is near the outfall of the Biscayne Canal, one of the low oxygen hot spots last year.
“This buoy is doing great. We’ve only had three days in the last 45 days where oxygen has even sagged even a little bit,” Crowl says.
But the buoy at the outfall of the Little River is a different story.
“Virtually every morning from the past 30 days I’ve gotten a text around 4 a.m. that says the oxygen in the Little River has dropped down to about 3 millimeters per liter,” Crowl says.
Oxygen readings of 2 milligrams per liter will set off alarm bells.
“The minute I see 2 milligrams here, I’ll start making phone calls to people and we’ll have people going up and down the bay looking,” Crowl says.
Is it any wonder? Images of the Little River were sent to us by a Local 10 viewer just two weeks ago, showing islands of floating garbage. It’s literally just the tip of this deadly iceberg of trash. All the pollutants in the water you can’t see are the real killers.
“Chemicals: nitrogen, phosphorus, fertilizers, herbicides,” Silverstein says. “Things like that that are getting into the water that are invisible to us, are causing these low dissolved oxygen problems.”
The South Florida Water Management District was notified of the floating garbage and within two days scooped up all the solid trash and debris near the water control structure off Northeast 82nd Street.
“The district manages about 2,200 miles worth of canals, and we have stepped up the rounds in the Little River, where we station a vessel now and are performing weekly cleanouts to ensure the debris does not collect when summer rains frequently fall,” Scott Wagner, vice-chair of the SFWMD governing board said in a statement to Local 10 News. “Our goal is really to find less and less trash as the public starts to understand the debris ends up in our waters, helping us prevent it from the get-go.”
That education for the public is crucial.
Irela Bague is Miami-Dade County’s newly appointed chief bay officer, tasked with putting together a comprehensive management plan to restore the watershed.
“Sadly, it took a fish kill to wake everybody up,” she says. “We’re looking at the Little River area as a place to start.”
And they’re starting with $20 million — $10 million recently granted from the state, which the county was able to match.
“With those $20 million we’re actually focusing on the hotspots first, the hardest hot-button pollution levels,” Bague says.
It is clear there is big trouble in the Little River.
“I think that’s the highest volume of bad water coming in right now,” Crowl says.
Bad water from all the septic and sewer leaks and fertilizer and storm drain runoff and all the garbage. And while water management must regularly release this water into the bay after heavy rains to prevent neighborhoods from flooding, shouldn’t that water be clean first?
“They do have the purview to look more closely at water quality and come up with a decision tree where they might not open the gate to this one to let the water into the bay because the water quality is low, and they’ll do it over here instead,” Crowl says.
But until we fix our pollution and infrastructure problems, it is a game of beat the clock.
“We’re calling for those solutions now,” Bague says.
Water management says it is working with the county to address the water quality issues plaguing the Little River and have identified some more hot spots from industrial businesses upstream in Hialeah and Opa-locka. Meanwhile, the county is working on transitioning vulnerable septic tanks near the river to sewer lines and also upgrading aging infrastructure in the area.