Winter in South Florida means one thing, tourists.
But visitors trying to escape the cold and catch some sun may want to think twice before going for a swim, or at least check with Waterkeepers’ Swim Guide app.
On Dec. 3, just in time for Art Basel, a contractor broke a sewer line spilling almost 10,000 gallons of waste into the bay between the Julia Tuttle and Venetian causeways, according to the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. The county issued a warning to boaters and swimmers in what was only the county’s most recent sewage leak.
An even bigger leak occurred on Sept. 4 when a power failure caused by Tropical Storm Gordon at the North District Wastewater Treatment Plant allowed 4.75 million gallons of sewage to flow into the north part of the bay near Oleta River State Park.
Waterkeepers, a national environmental organization, test over 50 sites weekly throughout Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties and publishes their findings on the Swim Guide app.
Waterkeepers started testing the waters of the Biscayne Bay this year and found varying levels of pollution.
The bay has become a dumping ground for sewage leaks, runoff from animal feces and dangerous bacteria. Since October at least two sewage pipes have leaked, spilling over 10,000 gallons of untreated waste into the bay according to documents from the Miami Board of County Commissioners.
Miami-Dade County tests water sites as part of the Florida Healthy Beaches program, but after a budget cut in 2011, fewer sampling sites were located in Biscayne Bay. The bay went untested for years until Waterkeepers Miami stepped in.
In October their team went full time, collecting weekly samples from locations around the county including the bay.
Andrew Carter is the research director for Waterkeepers Miami. He says that sewage leaks are frequent in Miami due to a fading infrastructure.
On Oct. 10, a sewage leak was discovered coming from a pump station under La Gorce Island bridge and spilled around 800 gallons of sewage into Biscayne Bay according to a memo sent out by Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales on Nov. 15.
Carter said a leak this size is unfortunate, but a relatively small issue for the bay. He recalled several leaks where millions of gallons of sewage flowed into the bay unknown to anyone. In the summer of 2017 Waterkeepers discovered a pipe capable of pumping 143 million gallons of human waste was leaking near Fisher Island, according to its website.
A 2013 settlement required Miami-Dade County to repair three water treatment plants and sewer systems along with paying fines to the state and federal government, according to documents from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Jennifer L. Messemer-Skold, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewage Department, said that the county is doing more than that. More than a billion dollars are being spent to install state of the art sewer systems within the next 15-20 years.
Carter said the dangerous bacteria that Waterkeepers have their eye on is enterococcus which can be found in human and animal fecal matter. The effects include skin irritation, gastrointestinal issues and fevers.
Sewage leaks aren’t the only way this bacteria is finding its way into the bay, runoff from animal feces into the bay is another cause. Pesticides and fertilizers also runoff into the bay and can cause high levels of the bacteria according to Carter.