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Biscayne Bay Needs Better Pollution Rules, An Oversight Board And A Chief Officer, Task Force Says

BiscayneBayFishKill0812
Christopher Boykin
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Pelican Harbor Seabird Station
More dead fish were spotted Wednesday near the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, two days after a fish kill was first reported in Biscayne Bay Monday.

A draft report from a task force created in early 2019 to fix worsening pollution problems in Biscayne Bay is calling for a new oversight board.

A year and a half after worsening conditions in Biscayne Bay prompted Miami-Dade commissioners to create a task force to fix problems — and amid a fish kill spreading across social media — the group is now calling for a new oversight board and stricter pollution limits.

In a draft report, task force members say a new bay management board and chief bay officer are needed to ensure chronic problems get addressed.

“Past plans have helped to protect and restore parts of Biscayne Bay but they have been sporadic and disjointed” the report states. “Meanwhile, the watershed continues to be threatened by a lack of fresh water, nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff, sewage pipe breaks, compromised septic tanks, plastic pollution, and other contaminants.

“Biscayne Bay is in trouble,” the report says.

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The group wants to model the oversight board on programs administered by the Environmental Protection Agency that have helped clean up estuaries around the country.

Tampa Bay created a plan and oversight board in 1991 after 90 percent of the bay’s seagrass vanished between the 1940s and 1980s. Cutting nitrogen pollution and other measures have so far helped revive more than 40,000 acres.

The report comes as scientists and environmental regulators continue to investigate what caused a widespread fish kill last week first reported near Morningside Park, south of the Little River, in the Tuttle Basin.

Scientists believe chronic pollution in the basin conspired to create a perfect storm when high temperatures, low wind and increasing discharges from the Little River drove oxygen to lethal levels for fish. A seagrass die-off in the basin that started about 2013 and eventually wiped out more than 75 percent of the basin also likely set the stage by increasing the potential for the low oxygen levels detected last week.

Biscayne Bay has lost more than 20 square miles of seagrass over the last three decades, with much of the loss blamed for worsening pollution from dirty stormwater, fertilizer run-off and leaky septic tanks.

Freshwater that used to flow naturally across transverse glades have been replaced by canals that drain dense urban neighborhoods. More than half the bay’s freshwater now comes from polluted canals at its northern end. Flood control also dried up springs that fed freshwater directly into the bay.

Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned that the bay was undergoing a regime shift, replacing its clear blue waters and seagrass meadows with nutrient-rich green water and clumpy seaweed.

“There have been warning signs of declining water quality in Biscayne Bay since the first seagrass die off was reported in 1998,” said Tiffany Troxler, a Florida International University wetlands ecologist who served on the task force.

After years of decline, she said, it’s clear current management efforts aren’t working.

“The management actions that are being taken to try to protect the resource have not been enough to manage the balance between development and a burgeoning population growth around a really sensitive natural resource,” she said.

In addition to the oversight board, the 40-page report calls for establishing new pollution limits needed to improve water conditions and revive seagrass. That would mean setting goals to reach pollution limits and increased monitoring. The report also calls for a climate change assessment and county-wide fertilizer ordinance. The city of Miami passed an ordinance in April.

The group also wants better coordination of permits among agencies and more money for pilot projects showing how changes, like converting septic tanks to sewer lines, can decrease pollution.

“It's important to remember that recovery can take a significant amount of time and an earnest effort and funding in order to turn things around,” Troxler said. “If the commission agrees to move forward with these things, we'll have a really solid framework for a playbook going forward with Biscayne Bay recovery.”

The report has been forwarded to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who said Monday he expects to have a final version available before the county commission’s next meeting.

In an earlier version of this story, Troxler misstated the year seagrass started dying in Biscayne Bay. It was 1998.