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Fort Lauderdale Hired A Nonprofit To Test Its Water. The Mayor Doesn't Want You To Know What They Found

Joe Cavaretta
South Florida Sun Sentinel
A year after the biggest sewage spill in state history occurred in Fort Lauderdale, water sampling continues to show high levels of bacteria in water.

After the city hired Miami Waterkeeper to test water and post its findings, Mayor Dean Trantalis threatened to fire the group over unwelcome results.

After more than 200 million gallons of sewage spilled into Fort Lauderdale’s picturesque waterways last year, residents demanded that the city do a better job of testing water and disclosing the information to the public.

So the city turned to Miami Waterkeeper, the local chapter of an international nonprofit dedicated to clean water.

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The group was already doing the same kind of work for the city of Miami and village of Key Biscayne.

“It's a really high priority for us is to get the information quickly to the public and share even the information that is difficult,” said executive director Rachel Silverstein. “We feel like people will be empowered by having access to the most information possible.”

Even when results were bad, she said, Miami officials welcomed the information.

"The city really wanted this information," she said.

But when Waterkeeper started posting the results for Fort Lauderdale’s water sampling to its Swim Guide app, the "Venice of Florida" had a decidedly different reaction.

“The results of those tests are proprietary information,” Mayor Dean Trantalis steamed at a commission meeting last month. “We didn't invite them to do testing, pay them to do it, and then announce to the world what the results were.”

Except that Waterkeeper’s $95,000 yearlong contract with the city specifically spelled out its plan to post the results to make it easier for the public to get the information. The contract even included $5,000 to expand the Swim Guide app to include Fort Lauderdale’s 10 testing locations.

And the app does in fact include good news: when water conditions are below federal limits for bacteria found in sewage, locations are labeled with a green symbol. When they’re not, the symbols show red.

Residents in Fort Lauderdale were eager for the information.

“They tell you where to avoid because they're worried about the safety of individual residents that are participating in recreational activities on our canal, which are many,” said Suzee Bailey, a resident of the Nurmi Isles neighborhood and president of its homeowner’s association.

Silverstein said the additional testing paid for by cities is helping fill critical testing gaps. While the Florida Department of Health tests beaches in many locations, it does not test inland waterways that are popular in Fort Lauderdale. Results are also only posted monthly, and only when conditions are confirmed with a follow-up test.

“People are really using the water, even in these intercoastal waterways,” Silverstein said. “People are paddle boarding, they're kayaking, they're jet skiing and their water skiing. They're very intimately connected with their waterways. And it's a key part of life.”

Across South Florida, the South Florida Water Management District, Miami-Dade County, Florida International University and others also monitor water to look for chemicals, salinity, oxygen levels and conditions that can be unhealthy for the fish, seagrass and other marine life. But those results are often buried in databases that, if they are available to the public, can be difficult for the public to navigate or understand.

From the very beginning, Silverstein said Waterkeeper’s aim was to keep it simple.

"The goal of this program was really for people to be able to check before they go to the beach, before they go into the water with their families to know what the latest water quality results are," she said.

At the January meeting, Trantalis wanted the city attorney to review the Waterkeeper contract to “see how they overstepped their bounds” and whether posting the information for the public was grounds for firing.

“This wasn’t the purpose of hiring them,” Trantalis said. It was “to work with us to improve our waterways and not engage in this gotcha kind of mentality to try to tell the world.”

He has since backed off.

Waterkeeper continues to monitor the city’s waterways and post results, which show the city still has work to do: The Himmarshee Canal, Tarpon River and Sweeting Park continue to exceed limits for bacteria found in sewage. Waters near two additional sites, Coontie Hatchee and Annie Beck parks, also fell into the unsafe water category in the latest round of testing.

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
Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
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