An interview with Irela Bagué, Miami-Dade County’s chief bay officer.
As part of its series “The Business of Climate Change,” which highlights the climate views of business men and women throughout the state, The Invading Sea spoke with Irela Bagué, Miami-Dade’s first chief bay officer.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
Tell me about what you do as chief bay officer and why that position was created.
Miami Dade County Commission created the Biscayne Bay Task Force to address all the issues that were impacting the bay. What we found was that everything we do on land ends up in the bay.
And when I say everything I mean everything, from our storm drain systems, our septic systems, our canal systems that end up moving water so that we’re able to live here without flooding, and the immense amount of growth that our region has been going through.
We worked for 18 months on this task force. And we took all that information and we put together a report for the county commission with recommendations in different sections, addressing mainly how to reduce the nutrient pollution in the bay.
One of the recommendations was the creation of this position that stemmed from the report, to create a chief bay officer to serve as an adviser to the mayor and the commission and also as an advocate as well as a coordinator, because we have so many jurisdictions and the watershed is huge.
We have so many jurisdictions from state, municipalities, the county, the federal government. We have Biscayne National Park. So, we have a number of entities and environmental organizations all working to try to solve these problems but nobody’s really coordinating anything. And so that’s another reason why we set up this position.
I’m really excited. It’s a huge challenge but I’m ready for it, and we’ll hopefully move forward on a lot of these initiatives.
What kind of changes have you seen in South Florida in recent years with regard to climate change and how have they affected the people that live there?
We’re starting to get used to king tides, this regular flooding event that happens to the point where we didn’t used to see messaging from local governments reminding folks that the king tides are coming. That’s new.
These occurrences create destruction. The historic heat levels that we’re experiencing that caused that horrible fish kill. And now that’s something that we’re going to have to probably prepare for because it’s going to take a while to reduce the nutrient pollution in the bay.
So, climate certainly is impacting sea-level rise. It’s impacting our low-lying areas. They are on septic, some of them. That affects the groundwater and water quality, ends up in the bay. Everything’s so interconnected. And again, these are impacts that average residents and businesses didn’t have to deal with before.
What are the most pressing issues for governments in South Florida when it comes to addressing sea-level rise and other climate-related problems?
Obviously, funding is a challenge. Right now we’re in a pandemic so things are even more challenging. The funding aspects are challenging, but I think we’re at a point where we’re starting to see progress.
Miami-Dade County released a sea-level rise strategy last week, and it calls for a number of solutions that you we’ll have to deal with and start working on implementing. We also recognize that yeah, adaptation is one thing, but let’s look at the causes of climate change as well.
We must look at lowering our carbon footprint. We must start implementing renewable energy measures and solutions, and, you know, from the top down and the bottom up. So those are challenges.
There are a number of solutions that we’re going to be looking at, but they all cost money. Another challenge is governments need to work with the private sector and even our own property owners, our residents. There are solutions that they themselves will have to make to their own properties. And so how do we help residents finance some of these solutions? We’re starting to see a lot of creative ideas.
So, what are some things individuals and businesses can do to support the health of Biscayne Bay and curb climate change?
What we should all try to be doing is preventing pollution from entering the bay to begin with. The biggest challenge for us is public education.
We are fortunate that we’re in a community so diverse, but within that diversity people come from different places with different cultures and and don’t really understand how vulnerable our ecosystem is here, and that we’re highly dependent—it’s an economic engine for us. And so making that connection with our waterways, our watershed.
Simple things like don’t litter—everything ends up in the bay through our storm drains. Pick up dog poop. Clean out storm drains, if you see them, or report them and really don’t fertilize during the summer months. We get plenty of rain during summer. There’s no reason why we should be dumping more nutrients into our groundwater.
And, of course, if people are on a septic system, and they actually have the ability to connect to the sewer line because it’s there, do it. You’re doing your part and you’re actually in the long run saving your property.
What can the Florida Legislature do to help local governments and residents?
We’re starting to see some bills that are filed. There are some funding sources that have been identified to help local governments, so I feel optimistic that we will start.
This is what local governments have been asking for of the legislature, this partnership that we need to develop together. I mean, we’re surrounded by water. It makes sense to have a state-led approach to resilience, learning from some of the work that’s already been done in South Florida.
Kevin Mims, a Florida-based freelance journalist, is the producer of “The Business of Climate Change.” He conducted this interview with Ms. Bagué.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state.