Miami-Dade Is Working On A Plan To Clean Up Biscayne Bay

MIAMI (AP) — Biscayne Bay is in dire straits, with several fish kills racked up over the last few summers, vanishing seagrass meadows and climate change cranking up the heat on Miami-Dade’s blue gem.

Now, for the first time, Miami-Dade County is developing a formal, state-monitored plan to clean up its act and restore the bay. It’s hired a consultant and set a self-imposed deadline of September to deliver a plan to the state to address the dirtiest sliver of the bay.

If Miami-Dade meets that goal, it might score some state grants this year to transfer more polluting septic tanks to sewer lines, a major problem made worse by rising seas.

The decision to pursue a “reasonable assurance plan” to clean up the bay is the first concrete action taken by the twin commissions — one from the county and one from the state — established last year to address rampant pollution in Biscayne Bay.

If that sounds like déjà vu, it’s because these groups are the latest in a decades-long string of task forces, blue-ribbon panels and commissions that come to the same conclusion every time: Biscayne Bay has too much pollution in it, and someone needs to fix it.

The difference is that this time, the county will have the state watching over its shoulder. Or at least, that’s the idea. After decades of inaction and declining water quality, advocates are concerned that the state won’t hold the county accountable for its new promises.

READ MORE: ‘Like Groundhog day’: New report has same old findings on how to save Biscayne Bay

Under this type of plan, which has been used from Tampa to the Keys, the county decides where and how to begin the daunting cleanup.

“The county sets our own goals and we work toward our own goals, rather than the opposite and being told what to do,” Miami-Dade’s Chief Bay Officer Irela Bagué told the county’s Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Board on Wednesday.

If the county doesn’t meet its goals, the state might add new projects to the list.

“We don’t want to say, ‘Oh, you didn’t meet your 5-year goal,’ ” Adam Blalock, Florida’s deputy secretary for ecosystems restoration, told the Miami Herald. He said the idea was to create a “collegial” atmosphere to meet water quality goals.

DOES THE WATCHDOG HAVE TEETH?

But bay advocates fear the approach is too soft. The state and the county don’t have the best track record when it comes to cleaning up Biscayne Bay. This new strategy — called a RAP or reasonable assurance plan — is a substitute for a process that should have happened years ago.

When state water bodies start showing signs of pollution, Florida is supposed to study them. If things get worse, the water body is formally declared “impaired,” like Biscayne Bay was in 2017.

After that, the state sets standards for how much pollution is allowed in there, known as a total daily maximum load. The next step is a plan to clean up that water, a basin management action plan or BMAP.

In many places in Miami-Dade County, that never happened.

“We have waterways across the county that are stalled at every stage of the process. We have waterways that have not been meeting water quality standards for years and years and the next step of the regulatory process simply never kicked in,” said Rachel Silverstein, the Miami Waterkeeper.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how it plans to enforce new water quality standards, and Miami-Dade staff said they were unsure if the state has ever punished the county for failing to measure up to the state standards already in place.

Silverstein said her organization, like other Biscayne Bay advocacy groups, wants assurances from the state that it will make sure Miami-Dade follows through on its promises for cleaner water.

“Whether it’s a BMAP or a RAP, we will be looking to see that the outcomes of the plan are measurable and enforceable,” she said. “After long periods without action on water quality issues for the Bay, we have to get this plan right.”

FULL SPEED AHEAD

Some of the most important (and most expensive) projects on that future list will be converting the thousands of leaky septic tanks that line the county’s waterways to sewer pipes. Human waste, set afloat by drenching rains and rising sea levels, supercharges canals, rivers and the bay with too many nutrients, polluting the water and harming marine life.

The county doesn’t have the money to fix that multibillion-dollar problem by itself. It wants a piece of the cash Florida has set aside to convert septic tanks statewide. Last year, Miami-Dade didn’t get a dime because it didn’t have a state-approved plan to clean up the bay.

Now it’s rushing to ensure it does before the grants open up again. In hopes of meeting that deadline, Miami-Dade is only developing a cleanup plan for one — very small, very dirty — part of the bay.

County officials said they haven’t nailed down an exact spot yet, but the general area is near the mouth of the Little River.

“The assumption we made was the smaller the RAP area the quicker we could get it done,” said DERM’s Pamela Sweeney.

That’s a high speed timeline. The smallest RAP that exists in Florida covers Mosquito Lagoon, a 116-square-mile slice of coastal waters offshore of Volusia County. It took three years to put together.

Miami-Dade aims to have its done in under six months. That’s also making advocates anxious.

“Most successful RAPs are developed over several years with robust scientific studies identifying pollution loads from each contributor and lots of stakeholder buy-in. While we are thrilled that a plan will be developed, this timeline is aggressive,” Silverstein said. “It’s critical that these core parts of the process, which are key to meeting water quality standards, aren’t skipped along the way.”

DERM’s Sweeney said she’s confident that the narrow confines of the plan will help speed things along. Most of the data they need has already been collected, and she expects the first version of the RAP will only include partnerships with nearby cities, not corporations or companies that also pollute the space.

“I’m an eternal optimist. We still can’t make a promise except to say we’re going to do as much as we can as fast as we can,” she said.

At the same meeting, the county also announced its plans to install new filtering systems at three spots near Little River as part of an experiment to clean up the fertilizer, oil and pet waste-soiled water that drains into the bay. Each of the three projects uses different filtering technologies and costs around $250,000. That money isn’t in the bank yet, however. The county is hoping state grants will cover the test.