Omar Jimenez remembers jumping from his dock into the canal next to Park View Island in North Beach every day after work. He’d invite his nephews, nieces and friends over to show them his “natural aquarium,” a colony of corals by his dock that attracted pufferfish, rays and dolphins that swam by.
But then, the clear water turned green and murky. Slowly the quality declined. Sometimes it smelled, and algae blooms became more frequent. Then, last year in the first week of April, the 34-year-old walked onto his dock and saw thousands of dead fish floating on the surface.
“I looked into the water, and it was covered with spots everywhere”, Jimenez recalled. “And, when I started looking closer, I saw they were the white and yellow bellies of pufferfish. They were all over the canal floating upside down, dead. That’s when I said, ‘I’m not getting into the water anymore.”
The fish kill, and its smell, lasted several days. Greenish, frothy algae blooms followed for weeks.
“I moved to Miami Beach because of the image that had been created over many years of this luxurious paradise and how beautiful and clean our beaches and waters are meant to be,” said Jimenez. “But now, after living here for years, it is disgusting. I would not recommend anybody get in there.”
A year ago, a sewage spill near Lincoln Road triggered the rupture of a sewer main four blocks away, and ever since, the Park View Island canal has been under a no-contact with water advisory because the concentration of feces in the water has measured 100 to 300 times the state’s risk limit.
The city of Miami Beach blames the extreme levels of fecal waste on a simple problem, dog poop. This past December, authorities launched a community outreach program urging residents to pick up after their pets, aiming to make the problem go away. But two local scientists said the claim is absurd — and that the city is trying to dodge paying for decades of neglect.
“Dog poop? Are you kidding me? You really need a heck of a lot of dogs shitting around us.” said Henry Briceño, who leads Florida International University’s Southeast Environmental Research Center and directs its Water Quality Monitoring Network.
Valentina Palm explains the Park View Island Canal situation
After studying the county’s water quality for 16 years, Briceño said the canal’s extreme concentration of fecal bacteria indicates a complicated and expensive problem: sewage is leaking from the city’s old, deteriorated pipes.
“This dog poop is a playing game the city has had for years,” said Harold Wanless, chair of the University of Miami’s Department of Geological Sciences. “There’s a problem of trust because if there is human fecal bacteria, that becomes a much more serious problem in the eyes of everybody, from the citizens to environmental protectionists.”
Historic Neglect of Miami Beach’s Sewage System
Federal and state regulators have been cracking down on Miami Dade County for decades to try and stop the immense amounts of human waste that flow into Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean every year.
In 2008, Florida demanded the county stop sending wastewater into the ocean. And, in 2017 the feds added another order to fix leaky pipes and treatment plants. The estimated cost for all that is about $7.5 billion — or $2,800 for every man, woman and child who lives here. With global warming and sea-level rise, those costs are likely to go even higher.
“Leaking, broken and busted sewer pipes have contributed to the spilling of millions of gallons of sewage directly into Biscayne Bay,” reads a 2019 Florida grand jury report. “Significant portions of the 6,500 miles of main pipes and laterals in the wastewater system are old, and in need of replacement.
Last year, the state sued the city of Miami Beach for $750,000 citing five sewage leaks:
- July 31, 2019: 780,000 gallons of untreated sewage leaked from a wastewater pipe drilled by Calea Corporation — 390,000 gallons went into the bay.
- Dec 4, 2019: The city’s East Rivo Alto Drawbridge sewage system discharged 3,800 gallons of sewage, all of which went to the bay.
- March 4, 2020: Drilling company A.C. Schultes perforated a 42-inch sanitary sewer main near Lincoln Road causing a discharge of 875,000 gallons of wastewater — 713,000 gallons streamed into the bay.
- March 5, 2020: Diverting flow from the fractured main, broke two other mains. Over 20 million gallons of raw sewage leaked in 28th St. and Pine Tree Drive that lasted 18 days. Another 665,000 gallons spilled in 72nd Street and Harding Ave., of which 593,000 gallons went into the bay.
The state demanded Miami Beach develop a comprehensive emergency plan to respond to sewage leaks and to “undertake an expeditious repair and rehabilitation program of the system.” Otherwise, “the discharges of untreated wastewater from the System will continue to present …the threat of irreparable injury to human health, waters, and property, including animal, plant and aquatic life of the state,” the lawsuit reads.
All this concerns Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, a local environmentalist group who for years has confronted the city and county about sewage polluting Biscayne Bay.
“Sewage leaks can cause public health issues,” she said. “They release a lot of bacteria and viruses and other kinds of unpleasant chemicals into the water.”
Murky water and even murkier explanations
A month before Jimenez witnessed the fish kill last April, A. C. Schultes of Florida Inc. — a drilling and water-well-cleaning company operating under the name of Jeff Wells Drilling — perforated a 42-inch sewer main near Lincoln Road. The city quickly diverted the waste flow, causing the burst of two other sewer mains. About a million gallons of wastewater flooded into the bay, triggering a no-contact-with-water advisory in the area and killing almost everything in its path.
One of the broken mains — located at 72nd Street and Harding Avenue — is only four blocks from the Park View Island canal. It leaked 593,000 gallons of raw sewage through the neighborhood, which flowed into the canal and then poured into Biscayne Bay.
A day later, on March 6, the concentration of feces in the canal was more than 345 times the state’s risk limit for a safe swim, surpassing testing measurements, city data shows.
The one point city officials, residents, scientists and environmentalists agree upon is that, even though the sewage leak prompted the testing that identified the canal’s extreme fecal concentration, it has been contaminated for years.
“The bacteria count existed predating the sewage leak,” said Roy Coley, Miami Beach’s director for public works. “We just didn’t know it, because it was an area that did not have a lot of testing that would identify that.” He explained the canal’s low circulation allows bacteria to linger.
Scientists Briceño and Wanless explain it only takes a couple of weeks for the bacteria to disperse or die out. The fact that nine months after the spill, a sample registered fecal bacteria levels 49 times the state’s risk limit, indicates the canal’s contamination is likely chronic, a product of years of raw sewage seeping out of old, corroded sewage pipes.
The concentration of feces in a body of water is measured by its levels of enterococci — a bacteria generated in the intestinal flora of humans and animals. The safe limit is 70 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water (70 cfu/100ml).
The water sample taken by the city in November had 3,448 cfu/100 ml of enterococci.
Wanless and Briceño said it’s impossible for such extreme fecal contamination to be due to dog poop alone.
“When you see these high values, it’s because you have a very active and very large source of fecal matter that usually comes from the sewer,” said Briceño. “We have tagged those high values with high human feces concentration. Maybe there is some coming from dogs, but there are a lot of human feces coming to the site.”
Still, the city of Miami Beach blames residents for not picking up their dogs’ deposits around nearby storm drains and the Park View Island Park, which is located next to a public kayak launch on 73rd St. and Dickens Ave.
Though the city opened the kayak launch in 2017 for residents to swim and paddle, it didn’t test the quality or safety of the water until last year’s sewage spill. And, after tests yielded extreme levels of fecal bacteria, the city ran spotty and inconsistent tests on the canal.
Since March, the city has tested the canal in only one location — the kayak launch– and has done so inconsistently, sometimes without noting environmental factors such as tides and rain that can affect enterococci counts. They also skipped September, December and February.
“It is not uncommon that the city will try not to find the problems because if they do, they’re going to have to spend money,” said Wanless. “The perpetrator is not going to try to find the problem.”
The city determined dog waste was the cause for the extreme levels of fecal bacteria in the canal after conducting two bacteriological tests, Coley explained. He provided four pages of results from October 13 and November 5 from a Miami Lakes company, Source Molecular. They showed extraordinarily low levels of both human and dog enterococci. In fact, in half of the tests, there was too little to quantify. The dog numbers were slightly higher.
“We do have a lot of confidence right now that what is out there is not human [bacteria], and if we are able to confirm that, then we can be sure that we don’t have human health consequences,” said Coley. “Then, it’s just a matter of identifying where all the canine waste is coming from and what we can do to reduce it, because we don’t want it there, even if it’s not a health problem.”
The city sent emails and installed two signs next to the kayak launch warning residents of the advisory, he noted.
Scott Stripling, director of Surfrider Miami — an environmental group — disagrees on the safety issue. “Enterococcus is enterococcus,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter what species it came from …If it comes from humans, there may be other pathogens that might also be making the water more unhealthy and dangerous. But if you have enterococci values of this size, whether it is coming from frogs, birds or raccoons, it is still unsafe for humans.”
Stripling explained biological testing might identify the fecal matter as mostly coming from dogs because the human fecal bacteria seeping out of decaying sewage pipes has lived in the canal for so long, its identifiable components have changed.
“My hypothesis is the enterococci have been living there so long they morphed into a new species not identifiable,” said Stripling. “These numbers are awfully high to be pet waste. We would see numbers in the 70s, 90s or even 250, but these numbers in the thousands. These are crazy numbers, extremely high. We’ve only one or two occasions got anything that high.”
Briceño added the counts of fecal bacteria that reached 123 and 221 times the risk limit in August and October, also signal dog poop is not the issue. Both he and Wanless believe it’s naive of the city to address the contamination as an isolated Park View Island problem when nearby testing sites also register high levels of enterococci that spread to the bay.
“If you’re sampling other wells and you have very high values, I doubt that comes from dogs, it has to come from pipes,” said Briceño. “Not until they fix those pipes will they solve the problem, and that’s what they have hesitated to recognize, that’s why they attacked me in 2016.”
Back in 2016, Briceño and Wanless, with scientists from Nova Southeastern University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, participated in a study that showed the high amounts of feces in Miami Beach waterways near Biscayne Bay were from human waste leaking out of sewer lines and septic tanks. Without evidence, then-Mayor Phillip Levine accused Briceño of inflating data “to strong-arm the city into paying him to test water.”
But the scientists’ findings were later supported by a study done by the county’s Division of Environmental Resources Management.
“Pipelines have been degrading and polluting the water for years and we’ve seen it almost everywhere,” said Briceño. “That’s why our ecosystems are collapsing in Biscayne Bay.”
Wanless said it’s the city’s responsibility to find the real source of contamination of the canal and to protect citizens and wildlife. “The city is not testing right or frequently enough to discover what the problem is …Citizens should demand this is tested daily until they find the source of it.”
According to emails written by Elizabeth Wheaton — director of Miami Beach’s Environment and Sustainability Department — the city stopped sampling in November “once the source was determined to be from dogs.” But, in May — five months before the bacteriological tests were conducted — Wheaton wrote to resident Tanya Bhatt that the contamination was due to dog waste and decaying plants as well as the lack of water flow.
In December, the city hired another Miami Lakes firm, Pace Analytical, to test Miami Beach waterways. Though the Park View Island canal registered levels 49 times the state limit that month, and was identified as a testing location, it was left out of the study.
High Contamination with Low Communication.
Island residents, who mostly live in middle and low-income apartments or in the few townhouses with direct canal access — reject the idea that dog poop is the major source of contamination. They’ve seen the water’s quality deteriorate for years and have turned to social media outlets such as Facebook and Nextdoor to denounce the city’s continued failure to communicate and address the canal’s pollution.
They believe the lack of results highlights an underlying attitude at city hall: while South Beach celebrities garner millions on every whim, they get the shaft.
“I’m gonna be paying around $8,500 [in taxes] so I have to pay a lot of money to live in Miami Beach, not just to live in Park View Island,” said Omar Jimenez, who witnessed the fish kill last April. “I feel completely frustrated that we have to pay so much and I can’t even use the waterway, which is one of the main reasons why I moved here.”
Initially, Miami Beach notified residents of the no-contact-with-water advisory by email. The communication was sent to residents subscribed to its mailing list. It was also announced on the city’s website and the Nextdoor app.
The city sent out 11 emails in March, including one ten days after the sewage spill, saying that an advisory to avoid contact with the water “has been lifted from all areas except the waterway adjacent to Parkview Island Park.” Only two more emails with similar warnings were sent over the next four months.
In August, the canal registered levels of between 75 and 123 times the state’s limit for a safe swim.
Teresa Morgan, who lives on the canal, installed a ladder on her dock in 2013 when she moved into her house in Bonita Drive. The idea was to swim in the canal, but it has gone unused for at least two years. She thinks Miami Beach still isn’t doing enough to warn people of the contamination.
“The city is endangering people’s lives by not telling them that they’re swimming in shit; it’s disgusting,” said Morgan. “I don’t see a plan of action.”
In response, the city’s Elizabeth Wheaton points to the signs at the kayak launch. “The public dock, where the samples are taken, is the most appropriate place to ensure that we do not have people accessing the canal,” she said.
But the sign doesn’t prevent people from launching their kayaks or diving into the water, and there are multiple potential entries — both private and public — to the water. One is the Tatum Waterway mangrove walkway located behind Biscayne Elementary School.
Park View Island residents say kids and adults launch their kayaks, swim and fish in the canal daily, even more so since pandemic began. Residents walk past the sign and jump into the water.
“It’s horribly dangerous for these kids,” said Paula King, who has lived just down the block from the school for 25 years. “They’re putting people’s lives at risk and they’re not communicating it is polluted water, it’s toxic, and people are out here on surfboards and swimming every day, especially since the pandemic started. This is like a dirty little secret. they’re putting us all at risk and not wanting to take any responsibility for it.”
Witnessing the fish kill outside his dock prompted Jimenez, the Park View Island resident, to set up a neighbor association on the island to confront the city. He said the city’s efforts are a “slap in the face to residents” and a waste of time and money.
He thinks the city pinned the problem on Park View Island dogs because the island doesn’t have an established association to defend or speak for the residents.
Jimenez wonders when he’ll swim in the canal again. And he hopes for more consistent testing. He wishes the city would communicate with residents and more directly address the issue.
“It breaks my heart that the warning to avoid contact with water is still in effect a year later,” he said. “It’s as if the city is turning a blind eye. We want the city to find the real cause and stop it once and for all. I don’t want to leave. I love living here.”
Adds his neighbor Teresa Morgan: “I see manatees coming every day, there are dolphins in our waters, there are octopuses, seahorses, rays, there are all kinds of beautiful fish and we are going to kill off everything if we are not careful.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Palm Tree Drive.