🗣 A chat with Irela Bagué, Miami-Dade’s first Chief Bay Officer

by Zach Schlein

As we approach the one-year anniversary of last year’s fish kill in Biscayne Bay and navigate a summer with record-breaking heat, the urgency of addressing climate change has never been more apparent. Daunting problems require creative solutions, which is why Oolite Arts invited Miami filmmakers to produce PSAs on how locals can do their part to preserve one of the 305’s most loved natural wonders.

In honor of Save the Bay, The New Tropic has teamed up with Oolite Arts to spotlight the people and initiatives leading the charge on environmental issues here in Miami. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing stories detailing what’s being done to keep Biscayne Bay — and the 305 at large — vibrant and healthy for the long haul.

Today, we’re sitting down with Miami-Dade County’s Chief Bay Officer Irela Bagué to talk about how her role came to be, the challenges she’s currently facing — like getting the public informed and involved — as well as ways each and every Miamian can play a part in protecting our waters.

Irela Bagué is no stranger to environmental advocacy. For the last few decades, she’s dedicated her professional life to tending to Florida’s wildlife.

Bagué began her career working for a county commissioner in Miami-Dade with a focus on constituent services. She was later recruited by the South Florida Water Management District where she helped to educate folks on the need for an Everglades Restoration Plan. Not long after she took on that position, Congress passed the Everglades Restoration Act.

Mid-story, Bagué jokes to me that, “20 years down the road here and we are still trying to implement (the plan) and find a solution.” 

Bagué also worked for the National Audubon Society where she again tirelessly advocated for the Everglades, this time specifically involving the Hispanic community in an effort to bring more diversity to the environmental movement. After an unsuccessful run at the State House, she became a governing board member of the South Florida Waste Management District Board by Gov. Bush and “cut her teeth” on all things policy and restoration. 

But since January, her focus has narrowed to one very large body of water: Biscayne Bay.

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At the beginning of the year, Bagué was appointed by Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava to the position of Chief Bay Officer. It’s a new role within the county government that’s dedicated to overseeing Biscayne Bay initiatives, protecting its water quality, and advocating for and appropriating funds.

How fitting, considering Bagué actually served as chairperson for the Biscayne Bay Task Force and the role was just one of many recommendations in the task force’s 2020 report. Although she’d helped lobby for the role’s creation, Bagué didn’t envision actually filling it herself. 

“I guess it’s a case of being careful what you do, because you may just end up doing it,” she jokes. 

Miami-Dade County Save the Manatee and Boating Safety Initiative on April 24th, 2021 with Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management, Miami Dade Marine Patrol, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, North Bay Village, Miami-Dade Chief Bay Officer, and Commisioner Sally Heyman
Miami-Dade County Save the Manatee and Boating Safety Initiative on April 24th, 2021 with Miami-Dade Department of Environmental Resources Management, Miami Dade Marine Patrol, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, North Bay Village, Miami-Dade Chief Bay Officer, and Commissioner Sally Heyman

Fortunately, she had allies in a new mayor and county commission whom she says appreciate the importance of maintaining the Bay’s health. Unfortunately, the situation was dire enough that there’s no passing the buck to someone else: As she notes in conversation, we are approaching the one-year mark of the dire fish kill that consumed Biscayne Bay last year. 

In 2020, days, maybe a week after the task force released its report, thousands of dead fish washed up on the shore of Biscayne Bay. Local environmental group Miami Waterkeeper blamed the die-off on low oxygen levels caused by years of pollution, unchecked storm-water run-off, sewage leaks, and other factors that have killed the seagrass, making the bay more vulnerable to algae blooms and other sea life hazards.

Between the heat waves currently ongoing in the Pacific Northwest and the red tide in West Florida, the headlines these days are overwhelming at best. 

“It’s devastating. It really is. If you read the news, you’ll see that it’s really us,” Bagué said. “We’re doing this to our environment. That’s why I emphasize the public education aspect of the work so much because people really need to take responsibility. I mean, we really don’t have a whole lot of time anymore, you know? And we have to take responsibility, it can’t just be those small voices anymore in the room; we’re all kind of responsible now. And no one else is going to be doing the work for you anymore, you know?”

Luckily for Biscayne Bay and Miami at large, the famous body of water couldn’t ask for a better ally. Since assuming the role, Bagué has been tasked with coordinating county policies on how to best tend to Biscayne Bay while also recruiting outside help and external resources. And she’s making connections in all the right places.

“Basically, I serve as an advisor to the mayor and the commission,” she said. “I coordinate and partner with stakeholders. I advocate for the policies in the task force report, and for appropriations because we need funding. On a daily basis, I work through prioritizing the recommendations in the task force’s report, tracking what needs to be moved through policy and legislation and I work closely with our Department of Environmental Resource Management, Water and Sewer and other water-related departments, in addition to the Miami-Dade Police Marine Patrol on addressing solid waste, the Stormwater Systems and Public Works Department, as well as the Parks Department. And so all of a sudden, I’m finding all these different avenues internally that just connect to the Bay in so many different ways.” 

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Although it’s going to require sizable systemic changes in order to improve the Bay’s condition, Bagué says meaningful change is also going to require the help of civilians. Even if they’re a little further down the totem pole, Bagué says it’s crucial that Miami-Dade residents gain a better understanding of the importance of Biscayne Bay, the challenges it’s facing, and what they can do to rectify them.

Here are a few ways Bagué says the team is helping reinforce that: 

  • “We now have a dedicated web page to provide the public with updates and information on Biscayne Bay. That’s *so* important because we have such a diverse community, and people really need to know that we’re all connected. This is our resource, and it’s also where we get our drinking water from, right?” 
  • “We passed the strongest fertilizer ordinance in the state, so [I’m] very proud of that. People really need to understand during the summertime it makes no sense to really fertilize and use chemicals and high-level nutrients in our lawns. It doesn’t make sense and that just is going to end up in our storm systems and in our canal.”
  • “We launched an interactive Biscayne Bay report card. So every year you can go on and you can see if it’s red, yellow, green, you know what state the system is in. Right now we’re not passing any [rubrics] sadly, but hopefully, soon we will!”

A “Protect Biscayne Bay” license plate just got the green light, and presales from that should start in the fall and will hopefully generate enough funding for things like education and cleanups. 

Also on the horizon: The Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Advisory Board. The board’s goal will be to put together a plan that’ll prioritize the Bay’s recovery and reduce its nutrient levels. Then there’s the Biscayne Bay Recovery Fund that Bagué is heading up to help with community messaging and volunteer opportunities. 

But beyond the practical changes, this also means capturing the public’s imagination. What role do the arts and campaigns like Oolite’s ‘Save the Bay’ have in tackling the challenges of climate change?

“An image can really touch people. If used the right way, art and visuals can call people to action,” said Bagué. “Take Wynwood for example. It was an area that was pretty forgotten about and all of a sudden, it’s a mecca of tourism overnight through art. Art just really brings so much value to a community. The environment in itself is art in my opinion. The beautiful Bay is blue, and unique. Like Christo’s ‘Surrounded Islands’ project of the 80s, when he wrapped the islands in pink, the bay has long been used in forms of art expression and I’m just excited Oolite reached out.”

Overall, although she recognizes the steep challenges that lay ahead, Bagué’s hell-bent on channeling Miami’s collective strength to save the Bay. 

“We (finally) have all of our elected officials putting money in the budget. They’re passing legislation, they’re doing their part. So we need to do our part too, right? And so that’s the message,” she shared. “Everyone’s doing what they are supposed to be doing to move the recovery of Biscayne Bay forward. So we just need to keep that momentum going.”

You can learn more about Bagué’s work and hear from her directly during Oolite Arts’ Save the Bay campaign, happening July 28 at 7 p.m. on YouTube. More information on the event is available here, where you can also find out more about the Chief Bay Officer’s role and responsibilities.