04 • 30 • 2020

Miami BWTF & Suncoast OFG in Florida

By Mara Dias

Surfrider’s chapter network tackles water quality challenges head-on across Florida. 

Florida’s beaches and waterways have been suffering in recent years from outbreaks of toxic, blue-green algae blooms and red tides. The water quality conditions that are fueling and sustaining these harmful algal blooms are the result of several causes, including the disruption and diversion of freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee and its natural course south through the Everglades; warming water temperatures; and the overloading of fresh and marine waters with nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, lawn fertilizers and sewage. 

Coastal communities along both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts suffered through unusually persistent red tides during 2017 and 2018. Blue-green algae blooms, or Cyanobacteria, devastated freshwater systems in 2016 and even resulted in beach closures in several East Coast counties over the July 4th holiday weekend. Both types of blooms put human health at risk and often result in major fish kills and mortalities of marine mammals, birds and other sea life. Watch this short video to learn more about Florida’s algae woes. 

Florida's Toxic Algae Crisis - Surfrider Foundation from Surfrider Foundation on Vimeo.

The good news is that people are paying attention to the disruption and harm that water pollution is having on their everyday lives and are ready to do something about it. In 2019, the Surfrider Foundation successfully advocated for the state to allocate $500,000 to expand its Florida Healthy Beaches water quality monitoring and public notification program. This program alerts beachgoers when pollution levels put public health at risk. The Governor also convened Task Forces to identify research needs and seek science-based solutions for both blue-green algae and red tides by addressing agricultural runoff, stormwater and wastewater infrastructure needs. In addition, the Tamiami Trail bridging project was fully funded by the federal government and state legislature. This allows 6.5 miles of roadway to be elevated to restore water flow from the northern Everglades through the “river of grass” and ultimately, out to Florida Bay. 

The Surfrider Foundation’s network of 11 chapters in Florida has stepped up to the plate to ensure that beachgoers have the information they need to stay safe at the beach, and they're building awareness of sustainable landscaping practices to support clean water.

The Miami Chapter’s Blue Water Task Force 

Miami, and much of South Florida, has a long history of sewage failures that impact local water quality, ecosystem health and the safety of beachgoers. Surfrider Miami launched their Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) water testing program in March 2018 to better inform beachgoers of the risks posed by sewage at the beach. The Miami Chapter established their sampling schedule to increase the coverage of the state’s testing program. The Florida Healthy Beaches program collects water samples from Miami’s beaches every Monday as part of their weekly water quality monitoring program and the chapter tests later in the week on Thursdays. The Surfrider Miami Chapter sends out a weekly water quality report through email and social media to inform safe beachgoing every weekend. The chapter’s water test results are also available on Swim Guide and Amazon Alexa devices. 

The Miami Chapter’s BWTF program originally covered five public beaches, from 1st street to 93rd street. However, high public interest and support for the program has allowed them to expand to test seven additional sites, both further north into the city of Sunny Isles Beach, and south to the barrier island locations of Virginia Key and Key Biscayne. 

During the first week of August last summer, chapter volunteers collected water samples for their regular weekly sampling run on Thursday morning. They learned later that a sewage line break had occurred the night before, spilling into Biscayne Bay. The Miami Chapter’s BWTF measured high bacteria levels at nearly all of their Atlantic Ocean beach sites that Thursday, which extended well beyond the area covered by beach advisory issued by the City of Miami Beach.After reading the alarming results, they resampled again on Saturday. All of their test results and the No Swim Advisory issued by the city were then shared in two different weekend water quality reports to keep beachgoers updated on conditions at the affected beaches. This all took place before the state program drew their first samples the following Monday morning, well after the sewage line rupture. This sewage spill event shows how valuable it can be to have citizen science programs on the ground, ready to respond to pollution issues that affect public health. The Miami Chapter was able to provide more information in a timely manner on the impact of this spill at ocean beaches where people are recreating. 

Meanwhile, sewage spills and breaks continue to occur across South Florida and the Miami Chapter is making plans to further expand their water testing program this year. The chapter will be setting up additional water testing equipment in a lab space hosted by the University of Miami’s Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key. They will begin processing samples from their most southern sites at this new lab and will be able to add a few more sites from Key Biscayne and southern portions of Biscayne Bay. This new lab location also brings the chapter access to research scientists and highly qualified graduate students who have already shown interest in helping to collect and process water samples. 

View all of the Surfrider Miami Chapter’s sampling locations and their test results on the BWTF website. Keep up with local happenings through the chapter’s Facebook page. Special thanks to Christian De la Iglesia and F1rst Surf Shop for hosting the chapter’s first lab to launch their program and to Gulliver School for providing additional lab space. 

The Suncoast Chapter’s Ocean Friendly Gardens Program in St. Petersburg, Florida 

St. Petersburg, like many communities along the Gulf Coast of Florida, has long been affected by red tides and other harmful algal blooms. In 2019, the Suncoast Chapter’s Ocean Friendly Gardens (OFG) program teamed up with the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association and Wilcox Nursery & Landscape Design to educate local residents on how sustainable lawn care practices can be part of the solution toward combating these blooms. Together, the partners transformed Crescent Heights in St. Petersburg into an Ocean Friendly neighborhood. 


Before any shovels hit the dirt though, the chapter and neighborhood association co-hosted four educational presentations and discussions with local residents, elected officials and the general public to ensure that everyone understood the goals of the project. A native plants workshop was also held at Wilcox Nursery where participants learned how to select and care for these plants. 

When it was time for installation, more than 80 volunteers showed up to help during three work days, led by Arnold Rutkis from Wilcox Nursery. The volunteers replaced 38 small plots of turf grass located between the sidewalk and the street with native plants and mulch to help soak up stormwater runoff. Besides adding beauty to the neighborhood, the native plants thrive without commonly used chemical fertilizers and pesticides that pollute local waterways. The native plants also provide much-needed habitat for bees and other pollinators. In addition, the resulting healthy soils in these OFG plots help capture carbon from the air and store it below ground to help reduce the impacts of climate change. Watch this short video that documents the transformation of approximately 400 square feet of turf grass along the Crescent Heights roadside into beautiful Ocean Friendly Gardens. 

The completed project was officially launched with a vine-cutting ceremony, attended by volunteers from Surfrider’s Suncoast Chapter, residents of the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association, and special guests, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and other city officials. To keep these small OFG plots functioning and looking good, adjacent homeowners, Surfrider volunteers, and a newly formed Neighborhood Garden Club, share maintenance responsibilities. The services of a professional from Wilcox Nursery have also been retained. This expert will oversee maintenance as the native plants become established during the first year and provide training to the homeowners and volunteers who will take on this responsibility for years to come. 


Cumulatively, the Suncoast Chapter’s OFG project has engaged more than 150 volunteers through hands- on educational activities and discussions. Both the Surfrider Suncoast Chapter and the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Association are pleased with how the project came out. The neighborhood is more beautiful than ever and everyone who participated feels good about doing something to protect clean water in their community. In fact, 10 residents have already removed their grass lawns and converted their yards into full Ocean Friendly Gardens. In addition, the chapter is advising other nearby homeowner associations that are interested in making similar conversions on how to get started. 

The Suncoast Chapter has also formed a Clean Water committee that is planning some creative awareness- raising events later this year. They are working with the St. Petersburg City Council to sponsor an OFG section of a new city park system, in addition to creating an Ocean Friendly Gardens Award for the City Beautiful Commission. Chapter volunteers have started discussions with the City Council to develop an OFG rebate program as part of the city’s stormwater utility bill system as well. 

Special thanks to the City of St. Petersburg, Florida for providing a Community Neighborhood Grant to fund the Crescent Heights Neighborhood Ocean Friendly Gardens project, and to all the volunteers who contributed their sweat and cheers to see this project through to the end. Big thanks also to Green Bench Monthly for professional photo documentation. 


Miami BWTF photos courtesy of Annie Tworoger, Suncoast OFG photos courtesy of Green Bench Monthly