Water, Water Everywhere: The Environmental Issues Facing Miami Beach
This year for our quick winter getaway we chose Miami Beach. Neither of us had been there and my husband is a huge Miami Vice fan so we decided to check it out. We were following that strong Canadian urge to get somewhere warm, sunny and colourful. Miami Beach didn't disappoint on any of those fronts.
The only thing I really knew about Miami from an environmental standpoint was that it is in danger of flooding due to rising sea levels. I watched "Saving Miami with Jack Black, part of the National Geographic, The Years series. It is a contradictory situation where not only are neighbourhoods threatened by high tide flooding but new construction is at an all-time high. Everyone wants to come here. We experienced that by hearing languages from all over the world.
The Miami peninsula is gorgeous, hot, and sunny. An urban beach paradise. It is easy to forget environmental issues when the immediate gratification is so apparent. But, if you are looking, they are also hard to ignore.
I personally did not see any evidence of flooding but the risk of flooding was everywhere. How could it not be on a very flat island jam-packed with condos not more than a short walk from the water's edge. We live on Lake Erie. A stiff breeze brings the water up over the piers.
We decided to stay in a boutique hotel near Espanola Way. It was steps from the beach and Ocean Drive. On the first day, we rented a couple of those ubiquitous city bikes to get a feel for the place. Everyone uses these bikes, even the locals, as the area is quite flat and there are many paths that are well marked.
As we had strangely forgotten sunscreen we decided to bike over to the west side where the Whole Foods was so we could pick up some non-toxic creams. Shopping, breakfast and coffee later we found a path that went by all the marinas. It was wonderful eye candy for the boating enthusiast if you ignored the fuel consumption necessary to drive such massive yachts. There were a few sailboats for good measure.
The path took us down to the bottom of the Miami Beach peninsula and the South Point Park Pier. Along the way, we saw beautiful landscaping, both human-made and natural. We saw a huge yacht flying the Jamaican flag enter the port and a mother and child pair of manatees.
Moving back north, the boardwalk continues with lovely views of the ocean and the hotels and condos lining the coast. The area is dense and I started to wonder, as I always do, where they get the fresh water to sustain so many people.
Further up you pass Lummus Park and I was reminded of Venice Beach, lots of playgrounds for both children and adults as well as a swatch of green space to chill and relax. The park follows Ocean Drive where all the gorgeous Art Deco hotels hold premium space. I loved how they have restored all the original buildings, even incorporating a CVS into the facades.
Having got our bearings, the beach was our next goal. To get there you pass over the boardwalk and through a natural habitat that acts not only as a nature preserve but also as protection from storm surges. There are lots of amenities for washing your feet and disposing of your garbage and recycling. It was nice to see.
Our hotel offered a towel and lounge chair service on the beach even though it was a couple of blocks away. A separate company seemed to manage the chairs and umbrellas for a few hotels at the end of 14th street. We opted for the umbrella as well because, despite the newly purchased sunscreen, we had started to burn. We overheard one man saying that 25 years ago when he moved to Miami, he could stay in the sun for 3 hours. Now he could hardly manage 1/2 hour. The sun is hotter now. Even in Canada, we notice that the summer sun is stronger. In my desire for heat, I had forgotten the reality of climate change.
The beach is huge and flat with many lifeguard houses painted in bright distinctive colours. This is the ocean after all and each day there were warnings for a strong undertow and even dangerous marine life (jellyfish, we think). Everything felt well-taken care off and efficient.
Then, just as we were relaxing in the hot shade and letting the last few months of cold ease from our bones, the first tourist helicopter flew by. They came by every 1/2 hour or so. Not horrible, just a noticeable, unnatural sound.
However, what did annoy me was the advertising boat. You know those things whose only purpose is to drive around with alternating advertisements on its side. I had only seen them on city streets before. This one floated by every hour or so.
The irony of its gas-guzzling existence was that one of the electronic ads was a message to keep your garbage out of the oceans to protect marine life. This particular beach was clear of garbage until you got to the water's edge. There, pieces of plastic washed in regularly. Most of it small and well-travelled.
The bulk of the garbage in the oceans doesn't come from beach dwellers, it comes from fishing boats and sewer drains. Seeing the plastic here was disappointing.
Plastic in the ocean is a huge problem. When I got back to Canada, I did some searching and discovered that there are some very active organizations working to preserve the water systems that see so much human traffic in the Miami area. Surfers are the ones that experience the waste problem first hand and there is a Miami Chapter of Surfrider, "a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s oceans, waves and beaches".
Another organization I found is, Miami Water Keeper, and its mission is
to defend, protect, and preserve South Florida’s watershed through citizen engagemen
t and community action rooted in sound science and research. We work to ensure swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for all.
In addition to pollution in the ocean, the drinking water on Miami Beach could be threatened by humanity as well. I finally learned that this area gets its drinking water from the Biscayne Aquifer, a groundwater system that feeds not only the Miami Dade area but also the Everglades.
The aquifer is fed by rainwater and Florida typically gets about 5 inches a year. As more and more water is pulled out by the ever-growing population, however, the more likely that saltwater will seep in upsetting the natur
al balance. They are looking into other solutions such as tapping into the Floridian Aquifer, a deeper system that also supports central Florida, but to quote an article by Elaine Chen at WLRN in Florida,
Cynthia Barnett is an environmentalist and journalist who has written a lot about Florida’s water problems. “One of our past mistakes, which you can see in the Everglades,” she says, “has been over-reliance on big solutions instead of just trying to live differently with the water we have.
"Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink"
If I were to take anything from the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it would be that by killing the albatross, the bird that had guided them through the ice jams and kept them company, the Mariner disrupted the natural balance of nature. And thus, the crew paid the price with their lives. Not unlike how the people of Florida are soaking up the benefits of a beautiful part of the country without giving it back its due. Flooding, pollution and salty water could be their fate if they don't start to live more gently on this earth.
A somewhat dark ending to a sunny vacation, I must admit but we can't just take life at face value. Not if we are going to continue to have a planet to live on.