Miami commissioner tackling drain-clogging debris that causes waterlogged streets

MIAMI – From day one, when Local 10 News launched Don’t Trash Our Treasure, we’ve been documenting the growing litter problem plaguing South Florida that causes street flooding, poisons our bay and waterways and kills wildlife.

A recent report on the trashy streets of Little Havana caught the attention of the City of Miami, and the city is now pledging to do more to address the issue.

When it rains, it pours, and all too often here in South Florida, all of the trash in our streets ends up clogging storm drains and causing flooding. The growing plague of street litter in the city of Miami has been turning roads into dirty waterways.

“Even when we don’t have biblical storms, even when it’s just a little rain, it floods,” said Raissa Fernandez with Healthy Little Havana.

District 4 Commissioner Manolo Reyes said the city needs to step up.

“A resident doesn’t deserve that every time that it rains, they get flooded,” Reyes said.

Local 10 News met up with Reyes in the heart of his Flagami district off Southwest Seventh Street and 48th Avenue, where he was mobilizing the troops.

“Check the drainage to see if they are clogged or they need cleaning,” Reyes said. “We are here to make our city better.”

Since 2018, Reyes has organized a monthly maintenance checkup, enlisting an army of city workers to help keep his district clean.

“You see we have every single department, we have public works, sanitation, we have code,” he said.

They trim trees, vacuum out dirty storm drains, and sweep trash and debris up off the streets before it can clog catch basins and inlets.

“We have to be proactive,” said Reyes. “We identified catch basins that they are clogged, and then we call and we direct the vacuums to that area.”

To help ease the congestion of biomass in the storm drain system, it’s now illegal to use leaf blowers in Miami to dispose of lawn clippings into storm drains and inlets — an ordinance that Reyes co-sponsored.

“The only thing that we use the blowers (for) is to gather and pick it up,” he said.

Cleaning up the entire district is a monster job and the team can’t do it one day, so the work is rotated monthly by neighborhoods.

A list prioritizes the problems that need to be addressed, but residents also voiced their concerns.

“You see a lot of trash, so I was talking to the commissioner,” said District 4 resident Angel Dominguez. “What would be the solution for that?”

It is a conundrum that all of Miami-Dade County is trying to figure out; it’s not just street flooding, but the endless flow of litter that pours into fragile Biscayne Bay every time we get heavy rain.

Right now, the state mandates that cities clean out their catch basins, storm drains and inlets at least once every five years, but in highly urbanized Miami, that’s clearly not nearly enough.

“We’re revamping that maintenance plan,” said city of Miami Assistant Director of Manteca Operations and Public Works Jennifer Rodero. “They were in, I believe, a three year rotation, and we’re trying to bring that up to between one and two year rotation.”

According to the last published city of Miami annual storm water report from 2020, of the city’s 28,275 catch basins, only 6,758 received any maintenance. That’s less than 24% cleaned out in one calendar year.

Reyes was asked if the Miami catch basins are maintained frequently enough.

“No, I would say the whole city should be cleaned every single year,” he replied.

He was then asked if he has the support of his fellow commissioners to make that happen.

“I believe that what you’re doing, we’re going to get the support,” he said.

The new proposed budget for fiscal 2024 shows the city allocating substantially more money to public works and solid waste departments.

The city just hired a new contractor with two more vacuum trucks that now will increase the maintenance fleet to 10.

The solid waste department is also planning to increase street sweeping.

“I want to assure residents that we hear them,” said Wade Sanders, the director of the Miami Solid Waste Department. “We hear them loud and clear, and we’re going to put a plan together to address those issues.”

But the source of it all still needs to be attacked. No matter how much litter gets picked up, there’s always more to pick up next time.

Reyes believes public messaging is key to solving this mess.

“We have to educate people,” he said. “We deserve a city that is clean, that’s the only way that we can keep our city that way that that every single one of us be proud of.”

Currently, each city is responsible for maintaining their own storm water system and file annual reports with the state, but Miami-Dade County is now working to create additional oversight to make sure every city in the county is adequately taking care of its storm water system.

But this is on all of us.

If you see something, say something. If you observe illegal dumping, a clogged up storm drain or inlet, or just too much litter on the street, call 311 and report it.

About the Author:

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