By Irela Bagué, Chief Bay Officer, Miami-Dade County
As we near the anniversary of last year’s unprecedented fish kill, I can’t help but reflect on the most profound yet obvious conclusion the Biscayne Bay Task Force report revealed. Everything we do on land ends up in Biscayne Bay.
As simple as that sounds, it demonstrates the extensive impact Miami-Dade County’s growth has had on our environment. Preventable impacts, combined with variable weather and heat patterns, contributed to conditions favorable for a fish kill and suggest that a fish kill could happen again.
Scientists have explained quite clearly the perfect storm of events that led to the fish kill. The area has been made less resilient since the seagrass collapse, with seagrasses serving as oxygen producers that can also process available nutrients.
The highest-ever air temperatures were recorded weeks before, which contributed to very high water temperatures. Uncharacteristically low tides and winds over several days led to even less mixing in the water column already stressed by restricted circulation, creating a layer of water with little dissolved oxygen available at the bottom.
A heavy rain event that discharged significant amounts of canal and stormwater rich in nutrient pollution and low in dissolved oxygen exacerbated conditions that led to the lowest dissolved oxygen in the basin in 10 years.
Stormwater is conveyed via canal systems created to keep our properties from flooding. But effects of nutrient pollution are cumulative and can originate from stormwater systems carrying fuel, oils, fertilizer, grass clippings, pet waste, trash, and anything else that gets flushed through storm drains. Other sources of pollutants include failing infrastructure, including aged stormwater and sanitary sewer pipes that need replacing and repair as well as low-lying septic systems polluting our groundwater.
Unfortunately, fish kill and algal bloom occurrences may become our new normal until we begin to implement the long-term actions recommended by the Biscayne Bay Task Force and seriously focus on improving water quality in the entire watershed.
It is a monumental and expensive task. It will require decades of collaborative work and investments from local, state, and federal partners, including residents and visitors.
There is some good news and progress to report. Miami-Dade County has moved forward and with great speed. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava asked me to join her administration as the county’s first Chief Bay Officer, released a Biscayne Bay Report Card as well as a plan of action to prioritize septic to sewer conversions in low-lying areas.
In addition, I working on several initiatives, from shepherding task force recommendations in the form of directives for county staff, creating public service announcements, partnering with marine law enforcement to protect critical natural resources, and improving maintenance of our Bay islands that are being trashed by heavy use.
Our Board of County Commissioners has consistently led by adopting the strongest fertilizer ordinance in the state, creating the Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Board, and entering into a partnership with the state to invest $20 million in infrastructure projects to reduce nutrient pollution levels in the watershed. It is important to note that these improvements and investments will advance Biscayne Bay recovery, make our communities more resilient and be the economic drivers our county will need to recover from the effects of the pandemic.
Furthermore, with the new emphasis on Miami tech, new technology and clusters built around “blue and green-tech” can play an essential role in driving further investment in startups and innovative solutions to our water quality and sea-level rise challenges.
Together, we can save Biscayne Bay and make Miami-Dade County thrive.
Irela Bagué is the Chief Bay Officer for Miami-Dade County.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.