Grand Jury Report Warns Health Of Biscayne Bay Is 'At A Tipping Point'

Aug 8, 2019

A grand jury convened by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has sounded a dire warning about the state of Biscayne Bay, which it calls the “crown jewel of our environment.” The group warned local officials that immediate action should be taken to save it, and included a variety of recommendations.

“Biscayne Bay is at a tipping point,” reads the report. “Without corrective action, the declining quality of this body of water may become irreversible.”

A grand jury is a group of citizens that are empowered by prosecutors to investigate cases -- usually criminal -- and make recommendations. Grand juries are typically convened to explore serious felonies like first-degree murder. In addition to that role, in Miami-Dade County they have long served to investigate issues of public importance like returning voting rights to people convicted of felonies, the impact of child-sharing agreements between divorced couples and the intersection of sexual misconduct and high school football culture

The 33-page report released on Thursday has been in the works since last November, when the grand jury convened. The document warns that a myriad of factors threaten the health of the bay and the tourism economy it helps support. Everything from the aging wastewater infrastructure of Miami-Dade County to private septic tanks, the Turkey Point nuclear power plant and the continued presence of single-use plastics, are detailed as contributors to the current health of the body of water.

And that’s just the list of things that local and state officials might be able to address. There are some other factors outside of the purview of local authorities. 

“The entire balance is further threatened by rising sea levels,” somberly notes the report.

"I'm really pleased that the grand jury took up this central issue. Biscayne Bay is central to our economy here in Miami, to our community, to our identity, and I think that they laid out a lot of the threats facing the Bay," said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. "I hope that the county and other regulatory agencies take notice and take action on it."

Several incidents of untreated wastewater leaking into the Bay are noted in the report, including some during high profile events. 

During Art Basel last December -- at the height of tourist season -- pipes burst, sending thousands of gallons of raw sewage into Biscayne Bay and urging the county to issue health alerts urging people not to swim. Then, on Super Bowl Sunday in February of 2019, about 750,000 gallons of untreated wastewater spewed into the Oleta River, and from there into Biscayne Bay. Again, a health warning was issued advising residents and visitors not to swim in the area.

“Fortunately, the Super Bowl was not in Miami-Dade County this year,” says the report. Next year, it is.

The county’s aging water and sewer infrastructure is blamed for the bulk of these leaks. In 2014, a federal judge ordered Miami-Dade County to makeS $1.6 billion in repairs to the faulty system over the following 15 years. 

THE ISSUE OF PLASTICS

The state of Florida currently lists Biscayne Bay an “impaired” body of water. Miami-Dade County has created a Biscayne Bay Task Force to advise the county board of commissioners and county mayor about how to help repair it.

Among the recommendations made by the grand jury are:

- Increased signage urging people to dispose of their trash properly so it does not ultimately end up in the Bay, or otherwise just ramping up public education

- That Miami-Dade County and other municipalities install better grates on street drainage infrastructure, and regularly clean the grates

- That the state of Florida pass a statewide ban on plastic bags

- That Miami-Dade County set up a plastic bag and plastic bottle fee and/ or buyback program, placing a five to ten cent value on the products to discourage use.

Coral Gables passed a plastic bag ban in 2017, and Palm Beach passed one in June. Bal Harbour, a seaside community, passed an ordinance banning all single-use plastics in April. In addition, several cities like Miami Beach have passed bans on plastic straws. This last session the Florida legislature passed a bill that would prevent cities from being able to pass their own plastic straw bans, but it was vetoed by Governor Ron DeSantis. In his veto letter, he wrote that those bans have “not frustrated any state policy or harmed the state’s interest.”

Sen. Kevin Rader, a Delray Beach Democrat, filed a measure earlier this month that would ban plastic straws from the entire state, suggesting “paper, pasta, sugarcane, wood, or bamboo” could be adequate.

WATER QUALITY

The impact of sea level rise is already being seen when it comes to septic tanks, notes the report. Properties that are not connected to the county's water and sewer system run off septic tanks, and as the sea level rises, so do the groundwater levels. Over 56,000 of an estimated 105,000 properties that use septic tanks in the county leak sewage storms and wet season, according to a county report that indicated that the problem was partly because of these conditions. The grand jury recommended all properties be moved off of septic systems, but estimated it could cost up to $3.3 billion to connect them all to the central water and sewage system.

"This is part of a really big sticker shock that we will continue to get from projects that are designed to address sea level rise," said Silverstein of Miami Waterkeeper.

Other major issues outlined in the report are an overflow of nutrients into the bay by agriculture and stormwater runoff; a study published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration earlier this month found the increase in nutrients is threatening to change the Bay’s ecosystem entirely. 

Another major point is the increased salinization of the Bay and the Biscayne Aquifer caused by canals that are meant to cool water from Florida Power and Light’s Turkey Point nuclear facility. The process creates over-salted water that has formed a “plume” that “extends several miles beyond the western boundary” of the power plant, the report says. “This saltwater plume constitutes a serious threat to the source of our drinking water.”

The grand jury recommends that FPL do “whatever they can” to make sure the salinity levels in the cooling canals are brought down. The company is under a consent decree with Miami-Dade County to meet standards by 2021, and the company says it is on track to meet that goal.

In order to head off a worst case scenario, the grand jury says it will have to be all hands on board from government agencies, officials, as well as the general public.

“As we express our love for Biscayne Bay’s beauty, marine life and its ecology, we too often shy away from our daily actions that may be slowly strangling this thing we say we cherish,” reads the report.