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Biscayne Bay task force wants to set pollution limits — and more money from the state

Sunrise showing a fish kill in Biscayne Bay
Courtesy of Kathryn Mikesell
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A fish kill spread across northern Biscayne Bay in August 2020.

When the Florida Department of Environmental Protection awarded nearly a half billion dollars to communities around the state to address water quality issues last month, there was a glaring omission: Miami-Dade County and ailing Biscayne Bay.

That’s because state legislators required the money be spent only in watersheds with management plans that include pollution limits.

In urban Miami, setting limits has always been tricky.

“We're heading in that direction, but we're not there yet,” said Irela Bague, Miami-Dade's chief bay officer after the inaugural meeting of the county’s Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Council.

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Setting the limits will mean wrangling communities and business interests around the bay to agree on just how much pollution — the damaging nutrients from stormwater, fertilizer, leaky sewer lines and septic tanks — should be allowed.

“Everybody has a role to play and everybody's responsible,” said Bague. “They all agree to a target and they all work together to meet it.”

In just the last decade, nutrients pouring into the bay have helped wipe out more than 20 square miles of seagrass. A 2019 county report found nearly 93% of meadows had disappeared from the southern part of the bay; 85% in the central bay near Coral Gables; and up to 89% at the bay’s busy north end. Those grasses help absorb nutrients, stabilize the bay bottom to keep water clear and provide oxygen.

The 21-member advisory council was formed after a county commissioned task force report outlined more than 60 solutions. Members include three county commissioners as well as local cities, universities and representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Biscayne National Park. Industry is also represented with members from the Builders Association of South Florida and Miami Marine Council.

Monday’s meeting got off to an ambitious start, with council members eying the state money.

The potential for conflicts was also apparent: Just last week, the three county commissioners on the board voted to approve a permit for a mega winter boat show along the bay’s western shores inhabited by manatees. This year, manatee deaths have reached record highs, with most deaths attributed to starvation linked to seagrass die-offs in the Indian River Lagoon.

Over the objections of environmental staff, the commissioners agreed to allow boat show organizers to hold trial rides on boats in a protected manatee zone. Attorney Spencer Crowley represented the boat show organizers in the permit application.

County Commissioner Danielle Cohen Higgins, the advisory council’s newly elected chair, asked staff to assign more spotters to the event.

The bay’s health has long been a driver of changes along its shores, beginning in the late 1960s with the creation of a national monument to protect the wilder southern end from development. The 1970s also saw significant clean-up with the passage of the Clean Water Act. But since the '80s, as conditions deteriorated, efforts lagged.

What makes this effort different, Bague said, is the creation of county-designated task force under orders to come up with fixes.

“We actually have a permanent board; a group of people that will be meeting regularly to review and prioritize,” she said. “The bay watershed has never had that kind of oversight. The Miami River has that kind of oversight and the Bay doesn't.”

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