Take a look back at the top 5 ‘Don’t Trash Our Treasure’ stories of 2021

When Local 10 News launched Don't Trash Our Treasure, we knew there would be much to report on about the challenges to the environment in South Florida. Here are the Top 5 from the past year.

MIAMI – On Earth Day, April 22, Local 10 News launched a new initiative, “Don’t Trash our Treasure” — a weekly series of environmental reports where we focus on the challenges our natural world is facing right now and on how we all play part in restoring and protecting our most valuable resource: our home, planet Earth.

It is indeed sobering that there have been no shortage of stories to cover from plastic pollution to the declining health of our South Florida ecosystem and our local heroes trying to make a difference.

But as 2021 draws to a close, we picked what we believe are our top five reports from the past year, in hopes that by revisiting them, it might move the narrative forward and encourage more of us to get involved.

No. 5: Pollution

We end the year exactly where we launched back in April, at the Miami Marine Stadium basin and the human-made spoil islands of Biscayne Bay -- areas frequented by boaters and watercraft enthusiasts who can’t seem to pick up after themselves.

“By the end of the day, the trash starts to accumulate. Everybody finishes up, they pack up, they go home. But the trash stays,” paddling instructor Paolo Ameglio said.

Since we ran our story eight months ago, the city of Miami is now servicing the garbage cans on the islands twice a week, but still bins regularly overflow with trash that gets swept up into the bay when the tide rolls in.

“This is not only disrespectful to the residents, but it’s also disrespectful to our wildlife, and I am so tired of picking up your trash,” said MJ Algarra, founder of Clean This Beach Up.

The state and county are now stepping up with legislation being presented to crack down on illegal Jet Ski operations and food vending, with no wake signs soon to be installed in the basin to crack down on reckless boating and polluters.

But it’s not just thoughtless boaters trashing our treasure.

“The majority of plastics -- over 80 percent of plastics in our ocean come from land-based sources like outfalls and street ways,” said Theo Quernee, founder of Send it for the Seas.

No. 4: Littering

The enormous amount of littering happening all over South Florida is progressively choking our waterways with pollution.

It doesn’t matter how far west you think you are from any body of water -- whether you’re in Miami Gardens, Miami Lakes, Doral, west Kendall, or even Homestead -- whatever trash you throw on the ground or out your car window more than likely will get swept up in a storm drain that will empty out into one of our many canals that will then dump all that pollution right into Biscayne Bay.

And it’s not just Biscayne Bay, Broward’s Intracoastal and beaches are also suffocating in trash.

“You see it all the time and there’s trash everywhere,” Miramar resident Colton Yancy said.

It is the growing global plastic pollution crisis driving it all, with 14 million tons of plastic dumped into the ocean every year.

“A garbage truck full of plastic enters the ocean every minute -- every minute,” said Catherine Uden, South Florida rep of Oceana.

And there’s no recycling our way out of it. In Broward, recycling is broken.

“It is hanging on by a thread, unfortunately,” Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr said.

No. 3: Broward’s recycling crisis

Recycling has become too expensive for many municipalities. The problem is that most people aren’t recycling properly, contaminating loads with trash that doesn’t belong there, driving up costs and forcing the county to rethink how it manages its waste.

“Which is why the thinking of bringing all the cities together to then create recycling facilities ourselves,” Furr said.

No. 2: Saving Biscayne Bay

“So far, it’s not as severe as last year. We’re getting about seven reports, ranging from a dozen to a couple hundred fish, and we’re just hoping it doesn’t get worse,” said Rachel Silversteain, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper.

On Labor Day weekend, Biscayne Bay saw another fish kill as in many other years. Although smaller this time, scientists are very worried.

“Ultimately it comes down to the pollutants like phosphorus -- that’s our ultimate issue,” said Dr. Todd Crowl, executive direction of FIU’s Institute of Environment.

Deadly nutrients from agriculture and fertilizer run off, sewage breaks and septic leaks and dirty storm water continue to wreak havoc on the watershed, causing oxygen levels to crash.

“The oxygen levels dropped to 1, and when that happens, things suffocate -- basically what they saw were suffocating fish,” Crowl said.

“Sadly, it took a fish kill to wake everybody up,” Chief Bay Officer Irela Bague said.

In January 2021, Miami-Dade appointed its first ever chief bay officer, Bague, who will now quarterback the efforts to restore the bay and clean up our waterways.

“We’re looking at the Little River area as a place to start,” she said.

It is one of Miami-Dade’s dirtiest canals. Enormous amounts of trash regularly accumulate there, prompting South Florida Water Management to now deploy a scavenger vessel once a week to scoop up all the garbage and muck as the county scrambles to clean up what lies beneath.

A $40 million project to transition 340 Little River properties with failing septic tanks onto sewer lines has already been greenlit as the county fast tracks other measures to try and clean up our waterways, including removing a record 51 derelict vessels from the bay.

This year, Miami-Dade also passed the strongest fertilizer ordinance in the state, making it illegal to fertilize lawns and gardens during the rainy months of May through October, and anywhere near a body of water.

Fertilizer run off feeds algae in the water and kills the sea grass. It is a race against the clock, and our marine life is losing.

No. 1: The deadliest year ever for Florida manatees.

As of Dec. 17, a record 1,075 manatees have died so far this year, most from starvation caused by the dramatic loss of their only food source, the sea grass in our bays and waterways that’s fast disappearing because of all our pollution.

“In Brevard County alone, they have lost 47,000 acres of seagrass, and that’s about 90 percent of the seagrass that’s been lost there,” said Cora Berchem, of Save the Manatee.

According to the state’s last count, roughly 6,300 manatees live in Florida, but with close to 1,100 gone this year alone, there are now just over 5,000 of these gentle sea creatures left.

How we behave on land and on water will make all the difference. The survival of the species is now literally in our hands.

In January, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will begin a supplemental feeding program to save the manatees from starvation in the Indian River Lagoon where algae blooms have taken over and sea grasses are gone.

Click here to read more stories that were a part of our “Don’t Trash Our Treasure” series.

About the Author:

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