Irela Bagué, the merry Miami water quality champion of South Florida, has a plan to face the most difficult mission of her career – that of leading the Herculean task of restoring the health of the iconic Biscayne Bay in Miami.
In June 2020, after 18 months of meetings with local, state and federal agencies, academic institutions and community organizations, industry professionals and members of the public, the Biscayne Bay Task Force, made up of nine members, presented a comprehensive report and recommendations on how to restore the health of the bay. As chair of the working group, Irela Bagué guided the team through the process.
In January, shortly after the publication of the Biscayne Bay annual newsletter, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava appointed Bagué Chief Bay Officer, a post created in response to the constant throb of scientific reports showing that the bay is in sharp decline, dramatically underscored by massive fish kills in August 2020.
“We are delighted to see the county prioritize Biscayne Bay by appointing a Chief Bay Officer. As a strong and experienced Defender of the Bay, Irela will undoubtedly serve as a catalyst for the protection and restoration of Biscayne Bay, ”said Rachel Silverstein, Executive Director of Miami Waterkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting Miami’s water resources.
When Bagué says “The environment is the economy,” she is referring to the inseparable relationship between tourism – Miami’s main economic engine – and Miami’s natural resources, whose crown jewel is Biscayne Bay. She is well aware that in order to succeed in her mission, building a consensus between environmentalists, elected officials and business leaders is essential.
“Irela’s experience with the public and private sectors throughout her career will be an asset as she will bring together government, businesses, non-profit organizations and individuals with the goal of protecting Biscayne Bay and to design smart resiliency solutions, ”said David Martin, CEO of Terra Group and a member of the Biscayne Bay task force. “The bay is one of the greatest natural resources in our community, so it is imperative that we have a strong, forward-looking resource person like Irela who is our very first Bay Chief.”
Bagué says his first year priorities include improving public education and advocating for the importance of restoring Biscayne Bay, creating a Biscayne Bay Watershed Management Board made up of governments, agencies and stakeholders, and launching critical projects in areas with the highest levels of nutrient pollution. These projects include wastewater and stormwater improvement strategies and habitat restoration in coastal areas.
One of the pillars of the effort to save the bay is the Proposed Septic Tank Action Plan, a massive undertaking to convert the county’s 120,000 septic tanks to the Miami sewer system in order to prevent a new infiltration of pollutants into the watershed. The plan, released by Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava in December 2020, could cost more than $ 4 billion to implement. Bagué is working with county departments to develop a number of options to fund the project.
“Beyond county funding for the septic tank action plan, we are evaluating traditional funding mechanisms such as proceeds from general bonds and special tax districts, as well as community development grants and credits from the community. ‘Florida state and federal grants, among others,’ says Bague. “For the model to work, we all need to participate and participate. “
Even so, septic tank owners will need to invest in the connection to the sewer system. The first homes slated for conversion are those in the northern part of Miami-Dade County, where the high tides have had a dramatic impact. Bagué says she is exploring a variety of financing tools to help homeowners pay for connection fees and is working with the Miami banking industry through the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce to identify loan options. While there are many causes for Biscayne Bay’s decline, nutrient pollution from stormwater runoff is one of the biggest issues. It is important to note that the stormwater systems in Miami-Dade
Counties are controlled by local jurisdictions. The county only controls the storm water system in the Unincorporated Municipal Service Area (UMSA). Bagué is already working closely with municipalities to address the problem of stormwater runoff.
“We are already seeing cities implementing pilot programs such as installing storm grilles and new technologies,” she says. “For example, the town of Coral Gables is testing ‘smart sponge’ technology that could filter out oil, grease, bacteria, heavy metals and chemical fertilizers. They have installed a dam to capture runoff in the Gables Waterway and are determining the feasibility of this technology.
Beyond the strategies outlined in the Biscayne Bay task force report, Bagué hopes citizens will do their part to help Biscayne Bay recover. Specifically, she suggests reducing the use of plastic bags and water bottles, collecting animal waste, and cutting back on fertilizers and pesticides in backyards. These pollutants can end up in Biscayne Bay due to rain and wind.
In addition, citizens can practice responsible boating, watch out for slow-moving manatees, avoid litter and help clean up local beaches. “Many of us who live here, and those who visit Miami, are unaware of how the daily choices we make can impact our fragile ecosystem and our quality of life,” Bagué says. The public must be our partner and know that their individual actions can help improve the health of one of our most precious resources – Biscayne Bay. ”
Irela Bagué is Miami-Dade County’s first Chief Bay Officer (CBO). Previously, Ms. Bagué chaired Miami-Dade County Biscayne Bay Task Force, served on the South Florida Water Board of Directors District Management and chaired the Miami River Commission. Before joining the County government, Ms. Bagué was President and CEO of Groupe Bagué, a full-service consulting company with more than 20 years of experience in Florida with expertise in strategic communication, water policy, sustainability, climate change mitigation, adaptation and resilience. Ms. Bagué is vice-president of Greater Miami House Resilience Committee.