The Fight to Save the Coral Gables Waterway and Biscayne Bay
The imagery was shocking – a plume of pollution emanating from a construction site in Gables Estates, with grey runoff oozing into the pristine waters that feed from the Coral Gables Waterway into Biscayne Bay.
This incident, presented to the city commission by Vice Mayor Vince Lago earlier this fall, was a wake-up call. Lago used it specifically to increase fines for such acts of pollution from its current $500 to 30 times that amount. “$500 is not a fine for a $5 million project,” he said. “That is just a cost of doing business.”
Lago also used the incident – which took place in the same time period as a massive algae bloom that left thousands of dead fish floating in the bay – as a call to action. “It is absolutely necessary for us to protect our waterways,” said Lago. “This is a non-partisan issue.” Besides the degradation of lifestyle that polluted waters cause, Lago pointed out the economic factor. “If the bay dies, what happens to property values?” he asked.
What happens indeed. There are more than 40 miles of coastline in Coral Gables, and residents who live in waterfront homes on canals that front Biscayne Bay or along the Coral Gables Waterway provide 25 percent of property taxes for the city.
“This is about the overall quality and respect we give to our waterways,” says Lago. “It makes complete sense that we need to make this our priority.”
With that in mind, the city has enacted a series of initiatives designed to protect the Gables Waterway and the shoreline along the bay. Part of that effort was the recent “cleanup season,” which ran from Sept. 19 to Nov. 1. Unlike previous (pre-Covid) cleanups, no gangs of volunteers could congregate, so this year solo cleanups were encouraged. Lago and his wife Olga contributed $500 each for prize money to the winner of the best “before and after” cleanup shot (winners to be announced in late November).
Among other steps taken by Coral Gables officials in recent months to cut back on pollutants flowing into the waterways:
• Installation of a “Smart Sponge Line Skimmer” at the Riviera Drive outfall, west of Coral Gables High School, a favorite wintertime gathering spot for manatees. The skimmer, a donation from SCR Mechanical of Coral Gables, is designed to prevent oil and other street runoff hydrocarbons from entering the waterway.
• Approval of a $5,000 pilot project to install in the downtown area up to 20 grates over storm drains designed to block trash from ending up in the waterway. If the program is successful, the grates would be installed over drains throughout the city.
• Increased monitoring of construction sites, where debris and pollutant runoff often spills into the waterways, and tougher penalties for violations. In October the city commission unanimously voted to beef up the code so that property owners or contractors could be fined up to $15,000.
• Tightened restrictions on the use of fertilizers during the June through November rainy season in an effort to prevent chemical runoff into the waterways, a measure initially introduced last year by Commissioner Pat Keon.
• Sponsoring an International Coastal Clean-Up competition; a socially-distanced, age-of-Covid effort in partnership with Ocean Conservancy and Keep Coral Gables Beautiful designed to encourage volunteers to compete for prizes by picking up litter and tracking on an app the amount of debris collected.
“Coral Gables is blessed with beautiful waterways, all tied to property values, recreational opportunities and the environment,” says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the public interest group Miami Waterkeeper. “We have to be sure we are carefully controlling pollution that gets into those waterways from septic tanks, storm water runoff and fertilizer overuse… I think communities are realizing the value of clean water, of having backyards full of wildlife.”
Of course, cutting down on plastics, chemicals, oils and other pollutants that are washed, blown or dumped into local waterways may not be a panacea for sea level rise, sea grass die-offs, algae blooms, or massive fish kills. But it is a start, experts say.
Just how endangered Coral Gables waterways are may come into clearer focus thanks to a multi-year study of the city’s waterways being led by researchers at Florida International University. The study, for which the city has budgeted $1.2 million over next five years, will sample water quality as a means of pinpointing the sources of nutrients that run off into ground water and end up in Gables’ canals and Biscayne Bay.