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A Drain on the System PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kim Ogren, BT Contributor   
September 2019

 

The bay is dying, and the county can’t wash its hands clean

Ybigstock-Mangrove-Trees-Silhouetted-Aga-278146891ou could hear a pin drop at the conclusion of a presentation to the Biscayne Bay Task Force in mid-July by Virginia Walsh, a hydrogeologist with Miami-Dade County’s Water and Sewer Department.

Those of us observing the presentations that day had been offered the most compelling evidence that old septic tanks concentrated in northern Miami-Dade County are a significant source of pollution in northern Biscayne Bay. You can see the slides and maps for yourself online. Search Biscayne Bay Task Force. (See also “The Toxic World Beneath Your Feet.”)

And yet, we were cautioned, we still don’t have enough information to act. We were told that the current water-quality monitoring system wasn’t designed to find solutions to such land-based sources of pollution. That there are more data stations going in, but even those might not be enough.

The next day, I spoke with Jeff Allenby, director of conservation technology at the Chesapeake Conservancy. He runs the Conservation Innovation Center there, which partners with organizations around the country to apply cutting-edge research to land and water policy decisions. We were preparing for a presentation he’d make about “precision mapping,” which uses aerial imagery to lead officials to the best solutions for water problems, quickly.

Allenby is an expert at applying the latest best mapping technology to solve problems like those we face in Biscayne Bay. I lamented that no coordinated, transparent data and computing systems for the bay seem to exist, despite decades of acknowledged concerns, studies, reports, and programs. We’ve learned a lot, but because the focus has been on conservation, rather than pollution prevention, we’ve been looking in the wrong direction and asking the wrong questions. Now we’re behind in terms of defining our problems, developing solutions, and the mastering the human and computing capacities needed to figure it all out.

“Yeah, the monitoring isn’t integrated and tied to the land-based processes,” said Allenby. “We see that a lot.”

What he meant was, the water testing just tells us what’s there, not why. Observable data points are just observations and don’t do enough to explain how nutrients interact with the land or why we see some nutrients in the bay, but not others.

At the Biscayne Bay Task Force meeting, Walsh explained that the specific kind of nitrogen found at monitoring stations in the northern bay is the kind that would come from septic tanks. Then someone asked why we don’t see ammonia in the water.

Lee Hefty, director of the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management, seemed compelled to weigh in.

“Well wait,” he said. “We don’t know how ammonia is metabolized in the soil,”  the implication being: We sure can’t draw conclusions from an absence of ammonia in the water.

Allenby co-authored the Chesapeake Conservancy report “Low-Cost Water Quality Monitoring Needs Assessment.” The report focuses on “pathways of nutrients to ground and surface waters, and addresses monitoring challenges associated with physiographic, hydrological, and geological conditions.”

The collapse of Florida’s freshwater springs illustrates how what happens topside slips right through holes in our bedrock that are literally big enough to drive a truck through. When I lived on Big Pine Key, I was so excited about the lobster living in a little crack in the opening of my canal. I’d check in on him on my daily swim in Pine Channel. I asked my buddy how I could fatten him up. “Keep on flushing!” he said.

This same technique -- but flushing dye and looking at a stopwatch -- led to the understanding that the carrying capacity (the ability to sustain various species) of the near-shore waters in the Keys had collapsed in large part from failing septic systems.

Barely a week after Walsh’s presentation and my conversation with Allenby, results of a 30-year study published in Marine Biology changed long-held beliefs about sources of reef decline in the Keys, to make room for land-based nitrogen from septic systems from as far away as Orlando.

Biscayne Bay can’t wait 30 years to have a point made. I volunteered for the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper group about ten years ago. (It has since been renamed Miami Waterkeeper.) I did interviews and wrote some grant proposals, arguing that a focus on the bay was critical to having a comprehensive understanding of our water-quality monitoring needs and the value the public puts on a healthy bay. I looked into the programs found in the Chesapeake to think about proposals.

The Chesapeake Conservancy, which is a model for us, is “accelerating the adoption of new approaches that combine technology and environmental management,” said Allenby. “An integrated system of sensors and high-resolution models describing the landscape allow managers to focus efforts where they will be most effective.

“It takes a holistic approach,” he added, “to implement solutions that address the specific causes of water quality issues.”



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