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Going to the beach this summer has been pretty shitty.
The Florida Department of Health’s Healthy Beaches Program has issued more than a dozen swimming advisories for popular beaches after finding unsafe levels of Enterococcus bacteria, a bacteria often associated with poop. Reaching its peak last week, swim advisories were simultaneously in effect for eight Miami-Dade beaches.
Swim advisories are not uncommon here, but their frequency this summer has been raising eyebrows and tempers. Water that is safe for swimming, drinking, and fishing is your right. Biscayne Bay and our beaches are central to our identity, our economy, and our culture, and protecting them is crucial.
What do these beach closures mean? Usually, they mean that pollution is getting into our water, causing high bacteria levels. Since Enterococcus bacteria is often associated with sewage, its presence has long been used as a proxy for estimating public health risk. High bacteria levels often occur after rains because pollution – including dog poop, oil, fertilizers, toxic chemicals, and debris – flows from the streets and the land into storm drains and finally out to our waterways.
During periods of heavy rain, we’re also more likely to have sewage leaks and spills because of the cracks and leaks in our pipes. On top of that, many properties in Miami-Dade County use septic tanks, instead of being hooked up to our central sewage system. These septic tanks can leak or flood during heavy rains– and this problem is getting worse because of rising sea levels.
But Enterococcus bacteria can also be found naturally in vegetation, especially in decaying vegetation, like the seaweed that’s been washing ashore all summer. These plant-associated bacteria are less likely to be harmful to humans than their sewage-related counterparts, but they register similarly in water quality tests.
Unfortunately, the only way to tell which of bacteria is in our water is to undertake the expensive and time-consuming process of sampling the water and analyzing the DNA in it. To our knowledge, no government entities have yet done this.
Often, the public does not even get the message that a beach is unsafe for swimming. An advisory was issued for Virginia Key’s Dog Beach on July 3 that lasted through most of the July 4th holiday. Yet there were hundreds of people swimming in the water those days, seemingly unaware of the risk.
We believe that beachgoers should know whether it is safe to swim at their favorite beaches. That’s why we update daily a free app called Swim Guide, which displays the latest Healthy Beaches Program testing data in real-time in an easy-to-use format. We’re also launching testing at sites in Biscayne Bay this month, because only two Biscayne Bay sites are being regularly monitored, despite the large numbers of people swimming, boating, rowing, fishing, sailing and snorkeling in the Bay. That data will soon show up on the Swim Guide. In addition, we post beach closures for the public on our social media channels.
But the ultimate solution to these beach closures is to stop polluting our water. We need to fix the cracks in our sewer pipes and regularly inspect our outfalls. We need to eliminate the millions of septic tanks in the region. We need to reduce stormwater runoff. We need better public alerts when the beaches are closed, and we need funding for large-scale investigations into chronic beach closures. We need more sustained funding for routine monitoring by government entities. And, we need more support for monitoring, advocacy, and outreach about water pollution by nonprofit groups such as Miami Waterkeeper.
You also have a role to play in defending your water. If you see something wrong, report it to us. This could mean strange smells, discoloration, unusual fish activity, or more. We have launched our Water Patrol program, which trains citizens to be advocates for their waterways and to see, document, and report pollution. Also check out our recommendations for reducing runoff pollution, including limiting the use of chemicals and fertilizers and quickly fixing any septic leaks.
Are you as upset as we are about our closed beaches? You can join Miami Waterkeeper in the fight for bacteria-free beaches. Become a Miami Waterkeeper member.Learn how to advocate for your environment. Patrol our waterways. Report pollution. Support a campaign. Sponsor a water testing site. Ask your local government to adopt a fertilizer ordinance. Follow us on social media and share our information (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram).
Join us in protecting the water you love.