- Defending, protecting, and preserving the aquatic integrity of Biscayne Bay and its surrounding waters through citizen involvement and community action.
The threat of projected sea-level rise in the not-too-distant future is not the main reason Miami-Dade County needs to update its sewage infrastructure. The main reasons, which have been here for the past five (plus) years, are illegal raw and treated sewage discharge events which are polluting our watershed. Miami-Dade County needs to update its system now because of the decrepit state of the system and the danger that large storm surges pose to any coastal city’s infrastructure. The issue of sea-level rise simply ups the ante and amplifies all the current problems and vulnerabilities. The future could present new challenges to our systems. Looking to sea level rise projections gives us the opportunity to make smart and sustainable improvements that will help us be prepared for these challenges. Sea level rise projections help us determine how vulnerable we are to rising water levels and help us estimate the potential size of storm surge and erosion. It is imperative we use this knowledge to spend our infrastructure investments wisely, efficiently, and with an eye toward the future.
The discussion about sea-level rise is not, “will it happen?” (we already are seeing drastic seasonal tides creating unusual saltwater flooding) but “how much worse will it get?” We cannot, in good faith, move forward with infrastructure improvements that will not help defend Miami-Dade County from devastating flooding and associated corrosion damage.
Hurricane Sandy proved that the catastrophic flooding that we imagine when we think of sea-level rise can happen now. We don’t have to wait fifty years for our seas to rise to see devastating flooding in large metropolitan areas, we can look back one year. Here is the opening paragraph from a New York Times article on hurricane Sandy:
“Over 10 billion gallons of raw and partly treated sewage gushed into waterways and bubbled up onto streets and into homes as a result of Hurricane Sandy — enough to cover Central Park in a 41-foot-high pile of sludge, a nonprofit research group said in a report released on Tuesday.”
It does not take a broad stretch of the imagination to imagine how bad a similar event would be for low lying Miami. The New York Times article describes how the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant on Long Island was probably the hardest hit. The next time you drive across Virginia Key, take note of how exposed that area is and remember that the sewage treatment plant on that key is one of the main treatment plants for Miami-Dade County. It does not make sense to move forward with infrastructure plans that do not include armoring or raising a treatment plant that sits at sea level.
Let’s not wait until a disaster like hurricane Sandy stirs us into action, let’s act NOW!
One year ago Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper (BBWK) along with Miami-Dade County resident, Judi Kolsen, served a notice on Miami-Dade County of their intent to bring suit for Federal Clean Water Act (CWA) violations spanning the past five years against the County. BBWK’s action came twenty years after Miami-Dade County and the EPA had settled on a Consent Decree and broke the record for civil fines levied against the County due to illegal sewage discharges.
Miami-Dade’s sewage system was in dire straights twenty years ago and after all the fines and work done to fix the problems then, the Miami-Dade sewage system, over the past two years alone, has spilled tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage. So here we are negotiating another Consent Decree settlement with the EPA. This time, BBWK, Kolsen and the Miami Dade Water and Sewer Authority Employees Union (Local 121) have joined the enforcement action as parties to the case. For the past year BBWK has been working hard to make sure Miami-Dade County does not continue this trend of negligence towards the people’s sewage system.
With the help of foundations and individuals, like you, BBWK has been able to hire experts to author reports (read the reports here) that have changed the conversation about Miami-Dade’s sewage system. BBWK’s focus has been on stopping the illegal discharge of millions of gallons of sewage into Biscayne Bay and its surrounding waters. The expert reports, commissioned by BBWK, and submitted to Miami-Dade county, the EPA, the FDEP and disseminated to the mayors and commissioners of local municipalities, have shown that the County’s inability to appropriately plan for climate impacts creates an enormous threat to the resiliency of Miami-Dade’s sewage system in the near and long term.
In this past year the national attitude toward sea-level rise has changed substantially. Thirteen days after BBWK filed notice Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast causing 10 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage to flood waterways (NYTimes: click here). Large metropolitan areas in New Jersey and New York experienced a huge storm surge and saw first hand the horrors of an infrastructure incapable of coping with substantial saltwater flooding. The cost of the damage has run into the billions of dollars (NYTimes: click here). Coastal cities around the world saw Hurricane Sandy as a wake-up call. The national and local press has covered sea-level rise extensively and the White House has released an Executive Order on “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.” (read it here)
Of all the coastal cities in the world Miami has the most to lose in the face of sea-level rise. It does not make sense that we move forward with infrastructure improvements without fully incorporating best management practices and most up-to-date science. Hurricane Sandy showed the nation that issues associated with sea-level rise are on our doorstep. BBWK’s involvement in the sewage case has allowed us to bring this issue to the forefront of Miami’s infrastructure improvements. We hope that we can help Miami become a leader in coastal city infrastructure resiliency programs and save Biscayne Bay from sewage spills.
Today Miami-Dade County circulated a news release about localized flooding that is expected to occur due to exceptionally high tides this fall. We saw flooding on October 16 due to seasonal high tides, and we may see more flooding this fall. These events show us some of the problems that our infrastructure faces as sea level rise looms on our horizon. How can we develop strategies to defend ourselves and our environment from flooding? Below is an excerpt from the County’s news release. Read a pdf of the release here:Miami-DadeTidePressRelease
“Typically, higher-than-average tides tend to occur in our region during the months of September, October and November and can be more extreme due to the factors mentioned above. Because the region’s storm water systems depend on gravity to drain excess water to the ocean, these high tides can flow back up into drainage systems along the coast and canals, flooding streets and adjacent areas. This occurred during a similar higher-than-average tide event on October 18th (See Photo Above). Therefore, residents are advised to use caution when traveling on any streets with standing water.
These annual extreme tide events illustrate the potential challenges of future sea level rise to low-lying coastal communities in South Florida and underscore the importance of developing appropriate strategies to address and reduce coastal flooding impacts. ”
Fresh water used to flow into Biscayne Bay. The Miami river, also known as Sweetwater river, was once a flowing river that fed the Bay’s ecosystem with freshwater creating a brackish ecosystem. Today these ecosystems are exasperated from an almost complete absence of freshwater flow. The situation with the Miami river is not unique in Florida. Our state’s freshwater supply is in dire straights from rampant overuse.
What happened to the freshwater that used to flow through the Miami river, that used to flood the Everglades and that used to bubble up in springs throughout Florida? According to Craig Pittman of Tampa Bay Times our water has been over pumped for many reasons:
“Where did it go? The evidence points to too much pumping of fresh water — millions of gallons a day sprayed on suburban lawns and farmers’ fields, run through showers and flushed down toilets, turned into steam to crank turbines for electricity, or siphoned into plastic bottles for sale around the country.
Floridians use 158 gallons of water a day per person, about 50 more than the national average. Meanwhile agriculture draws more water out of the ground for irrigation than any state east of the Mississippi. As a result, between 1970 and 1995, withdrawals from the aquifer increased more than 50 percent and by 2005 hit 4.2 billion gallons a day.” (read the whole article here.)
What does this mean for us? Depleting our water supply is detrimental to critical ecosystems which rely on freshwater flows to stay healthy. Also, depleting our water supplies will be disastrous when we start coming up short on drinking water for our communities.
How do we stop this horrible trend? We need to change the way we think about our precious resource. Perhaps because we are surrounded by water Floridians think of our freshwater as an inexhaustible resource, but we are beginning to see that we can use up all of our water, and at the rate we are going we will run out of water.
Once we start thinking of water as precious we might be more conservative with our own consumption. We might ask policy makers to ensure our sewage treatment systems become more efficient and recycle our water instead of sending it out to sea through outflow systems. We should ask that Florida’s agriculture become more efficient with their freshwater uses. And we should ask that our government take the lead in making sure that Florida does not exhaust our aquifers through over pumping so we will continue to have wonderful clean water for generations to come.
On October 15 Huffington Post released an article titled “Congress Passed A Climate Change Law…And Then Nothing Happened”. This article highlights the real threats that sea-level rise pose to Americans, threats which have been acknowledged by congress, that are not seeing the action required to address these threats. Miami is the city that stands to lose the most to sea level rise and, therefore, should stand as the loudest proponent for policy changes that will help protect property owners and residents from these threats. This article highlights the changes that need to be made to the National Flood Insurance Program in order to keep abreast of the impacts our changing climate is having on the way we think about flood insurance. This is a critical issue, especially for Miami, that we must keep at the forefront of our policy decisions in the future. Below are some excerpts: Click here to read the article at Huff Post.
“I wouldn’t be too surprised if within the next five years we could credibly start to incorporate climate change into aspects of the modeling,” said David F. Smith, the vice president of the model development group at Eqecat, a risk-modeling firm.
Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said he wasn’t surprised FEMA had been slow in setting up the council.
“It’s the rule, rather than the exception, that federal agencies miss the rule-making deadlines” set out in laws, he said. “Often they have to be sued to get back on schedule.”
Two months ago I was eating an oyster with Dan Tonsmeire, Apalachicola Riverkeeper, at the Waterkeeper Conference. Now he is putting out a call for everyone who cares about oysters and beautiful rivers. The Apalachicola river is being starved of critical freshwater flows due to water use up stream. (a similar issue threatens Biscayne Bay here in south Florida).
Here is the situation in Dan’s words:
“On August 13th, 2013, U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio held a Congressional Hearing in Apalachicola to gather testimony on the impacts of low freshwater flows to the Apalachicola Bay.
As the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, I was among those who testified to the economic and ecological devastation our River & Bay have suffered as a result of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ mismanagement of the freshwater flows in the Apalachicola River. Today, I am asking you to join us in the fight of a lifetime to save the Apalachicola Bay. We URGENTLY need your help to convince Congress to instruct the Army Corps of Engineers to establish the freshwater flows needed to sustain the Bay’s fisheries.
Please sign Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s Petition to US Congress located on the Change.org website. Please also post the petition link on your Facebook page and to your organizational website. We need many thousands of signatures to make Congress understand they MUST ACT to save Apalachicola River and Bay NOW.”
Support our sister organization in North Florida by signing this petition. You’ll be happy when you taste one of their delicious oysters.
Thank you for using you voices to speak out for clean water! Together, with our comments, we sent a message, loud and clear, demanding more resilient infrastructure for Miami-Dade County that will help ensure swimmable, fishable, drinkable water for Miami.
Some of those who sent comments include:
Local Partners: The CLEO Institute, Mayor Phil Stoddard of South Miami, Surfrider Miami Beach, Katy Sorenson, Treespace Miami Group, Urban Paradise Guild, Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, Village of Key Biscayne and City of South Miami
National Partners: NRDC, California Coastkeeper Alliance, Waterkeeper Alliance, Richard Snow, Seakeepers International, board members of Mission Blue
Check out this blog post on EcoWatch that was written by BBWK’s Executive Director, Alexis Segal. “As Sea Levels Rise, Cities Must Build Climate Ready Infrastructure.”
Click here to visit EcoWatch to read the blog. Below are some exerts from the post.
“On Tuesday Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper (BBWK)submitted comments on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Miami-Dade County’s Consent Decree outlining the $1.6 billion dollar plan to start repairing Miami-Dade’s sewage infrastructure without accounting for the impacts to the system resulting from sea level rise, erosion and storm surge.”
“Joined by many local municipalities, advocates and national groups, BBWK lobbied hard for changes to the decree for months, providing multiple expert reports, practical solutions and specific suggestions to dramatically improve the draft consent decree before passage by the Miami-Dade County Commission.”
“Now, since local and federal leaders have turned their backs, it will be up to a federal judge to decide how to proceed. We need climate-ready infrastructure. Let us, as a nation, make the decision to invest in prevention and not waste billions more in future repairs or preventable cleanups; let us spend our money wisely; let us prepare for continued growth sustainably; let us have a long-term vision of our future.
The comment period ends August 11, so there is still time to get your voice heard. BBWK’s comment letter was accompanied by 28 exhibits. You can make a big difference in the final outcome of this situation.”