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Miami-Dade Commission Votes To Hire 'Bay Chief' To Fix Pollution Problems In Biscayne Bay

Swimmer Kathryn Mikesell encountered mats of floating dead fish during her morning swim Monday in northern Biscayne Bay.
Kathryn Mikesell
Swimmer Kathryn Mikesell encountered mats of floating dead fish during her morning swim Monday in northern Biscayne Bay.

A recent fish kill and decades of warnings about worsening problems in Biscayne Bay prompted the Miami-Dade county commission to call for a restoration plan with tighter pollution limits overseen by new chief.

Miami-Dade County commissioners voted Monday to put ongoing pollution problems in Biscayne Bay under the authority of a new bay chief.

The decision is part of a broader plan outlined by a county-ordered task force this month to fix the ailing bay after years of efforts amounted to “disjointed and sporadic” results, the task force said.

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The group also wants Miami-Dade to model its restoration on the successful fixes in Tampa Bay, a slightly smaller bay that revived more than 40,000 acres of seagrass.

“These good faith attempts have been implemented too slow and often have been abandoned,” task force chair Irela Bague told commissioners. “The difference this time is that we must act now and we must act together.

The task force report, in the works for 18 months, comes on the heels of a widespread fish kill in the bay in early August. High water temperatures and pollution drove down oxygen levels that left the western shores of the Tuttle Basin littered with dead fish.

The fish kill grabbed headlines and led to renewed calls to fix pollution problems just two years after a seagrass die-off in the basin wiped out more than 70 percent of the meadows that help clean water and produce oxygen.

“It is really very sad that it took this extremely upsetting death of thousands of sea creatures...to finally take action,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava.

In 2018, after the seagrass die-off, Levine Cava asked county environmental staff to produce an annual report card on the bay’s health, modeled on reports produced for other troubled bays. Commissioner Rebeca Sosa also asked for a report on leaky septic tanks that have been linked to pollution. Neither have been completed.

A 2016 map shows the location of active septic tanks around Biscayne and the areas, in yellow, where water is polluted.
Miami-Dade County Division of Environmental Resources Management
A 2016 map shows the location of active septic tanks around Biscayne and the areas, in yellow, where water is polluted.

Division Chief Lee Hefty blamed the delays on the heavy workload for the county’s small environmental staff.

These are the same people that are involved with collecting water quality samples, trying to design new water quality monitoring projects. They were very busy also working on the task force,” he said, adding that he’d also asked the staff to revise work. “I sent it back to them to make it better. And so I’m the one that's going to take the criticism for how late it's been.”

In addition to a bay chief, commissioners asked Mayor Carlos Gimenez to come up with a plan for implementing the task force recommendations that try to tackle water quality issues that have dogged the bay for decades. One fix would set new limits for how much pollution can be loaded into the bay, which may require costly fixes to leaking septic systems and sewer pipes.

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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