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Miami Waterkeeper: How to protect our waterways

Miami Waterkeeper:
The waters surrounding Miami, both the open ocean as well as Biscayne, are ecologically and economically essential to the surrounding area. Over 80% of the 14 million overnight visitors to Miami in 2013 visited the beaches and/or participated in watersports and other water-based activities (Greater Miami Conventions & Visitors Bureau 2013). Biscayne Bay-related recreation activities contributed over 10% to the total Miami economy, accounting for over $12 billion and over 130,000 jobs (Hazen and Sawyer 2005). These waters also support a diverse assembly of marine organisms, including fish; dolphins, whales and manatees; sharks and sawfish; and seagrasses and corals. Many of these organisms are endangered or vulnerable.

Due to overdevelopment, industrial, commercial, and residential stormwater runoff, illegal (and legal) pollutant discharges, and perhaps most importantly, recurring leaks from Miami’s decaying wastewater infrastructure, Miami’s water quality is increasingly at risk. Not only do these changes damage or destroy important marine habitats, but they also can make it dangerous for residents and visitors to enter the water. Sewage wastewater, particularly untreated wastewater, contains significant amounts of human pathogens that can cause a wide range of illnesses, or even death. For example, one World Health Organization study estimated that swimming in wastewater-polluted waters causes 120 million cases of gastrointestinal disease, and 50 million cases of more severe respiratory diseases a year globally, as well as 4 million cases of infectious hepatitis caused by eating raw or lightly-cooked shellfish from polluted waters, leading to approximately 40,000 deaths and a further 40,000 incidents of long-term disability.

In Florida, the state Department of Health (FDOH) evaluates water quality through its “Healthy Beaches” program, which monitors for enterococci. Enterococcus is a genus of bacteria commonly found in animal guts and which serves as a convenient indicator for the presence of dangerous sewage-borne pathogens. When enteroroccus levels get too high at a beach, the local office of the Florida Department of Health is supposed to alert the municipality or agency managing the beach and update the beach status on their Healthy Beaches website, and occasionally issues a public advisory on their website. In practice the Florida Department of Health does not always test or post their results immediately, and municipalities and agencies often take little or no action even when a beach is found to have unsafe levels of these fecal indicator bacteria. It appears that spikes in enterococcus levels – and the frequency of “no swim” advisories – are increasing over time, at the same time state agencies have cut back on water monitoring due to budget cuts. High levels of fecal indicator bacteria in Miami waters are part of a larger water quality issue in Florida which has led to not only these bacterial spikes but also things like harmful algal blooms and seagrass die-offs. Under Florida law, Miami-Dade County must re-use 60% of its current wastewater output by 2025, though they have done almost nothing to reach that goal.