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Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
December 2019

Nearby canals are safe for boating, nature watching

WPix_JohnIse_12-19ant to enhance your calm? Achieve a more tranquil state of mind? Reach for Nirvana? Okay, escape the daily rat race that is modern Miami and at times can resemble an ant farm, with us residents the ants?

Well, fret not, fellow villager. A state of bliss awaits you a few minutes away. Greater Miami Shores is bookended by two wonderful (albeit underappreciated and underutilized) canals that meander from Biscayne Bay westward.

One of my favorite pastimes to escape the hustle and bustle that has become a constant jackhammer on the nervous system is to pull out my two-person kayak, yank one of the kids out of bed early, and head out to either the Biscayne Canal, which borders north of Miami Shores and the south of Biscayne Park, or the Little River Canal, directly to the south of El Portal and north of Little Haiti.

Hitting either one of these waterways brings a sense of calm that instantly transforms my perspective on Miami and the ant farm. No longer stuck in traffic, I enjoy more tranquil views -- the backyards of my fellow villagers, Miamian and North Miamian. As I glide along the water, I see jumping fish, lounging manatees, scurrying iguanas, squawking ducks, and barking dogs. These canals teem with remarkable life.

The Biscayne Canal is most easily entered from a boat ramp/dock in a North Miami parking lot next to West Dixie’s Griffing Park, wedged between the North Miami Jaycees building and a North Miami Parks & Recreation community center. Heading east from this point, you’ll pass the neatly manicured back yards of Biscayne Park residents to the north and unincorporated land to the south, and you’ll eventually end up at a dam that abuts Miami Shores Country Club, just as you go beneath the Miami Country Day pedestrian bridge.

Perhaps one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had on the Biscayne Canal was when an overly protective Doberman caught sight of my son and me as we kayaked along. After getting a sprinting head start, the beast leaped into the canal, barking and snarling as it dogpaddled after us while we sped up our own strokes to flee. Dogs chasing cars are one thing, but kayakers?

The Little River canal is both narrower and more urban, and serves as kind of socioeconomic metaphor. The best public ingress point for the canal is an El Portal pocket park along NW 2nd Avenue and NW 86th Street that hosts a pedestrian bridge, primarily for the students who attend Horace Mann Middle School and live on the southern side of the canal. Outside school hours, the steel door on the pedestrian bridge is tightly shut and padlocked.

The Little River canal brings Miami’s socioeconomic divide into plain view. Whereas the Biscayne Canal is somewhat suburban, Little River is funky, urban, and gritty. Heading east, you’ll pass by the relatively affluent houses of El Portal to the north and the working-class confines of unincorporated Dade and Miami’s Little Haiti to the south. I’ve particularly admired a seemingly abandoned tractor trailer that teeters precariously close to the canal. On the northern side, you’ll float by the backyard temples of the Open Awareness Buddhist Center, aging punk-rocker Iggy Pop’s part-time residence, the colorful cottages and boathouse of the Little River Farm House, and the recently refurbished City of Miami Oakland Grove Mini Park.

Traveling east on both the Little River and Biscayne canals, your journeys will end at dams teeming with debris, garbage, and more single-use plastic and Styrofoam products that will convert you into an eco-activist, willing to chain yourself to a redwood tree.

It’s witnessing the accumulation of debris that gets me wondering about the health and well-being of our canals. And truth is that the canals, like most of South Florida waterways, are buckling under the twin pressures of rapid population growth and unmitigated development. To get a picture of the health of the Biscayne and Little River canals, let’s talk first about what we can see, and then what we can’t.

As mentioned, a quick glimpse of the canal dams tells the story of the constant accumulation of trash. I watched a plastic container the size of a small Volkswagen drift by me once on the Little River.

El Portal’s Kristin McLean of the Little River Conversancy, a nonprofit dedicated the restoring the health of the Little River, notes that the Little River has the highest volume of solid waste collected by the South Florida Water Management District -- 130 tons’ worth pulled from the canal over the past year.

And then there’s the pollution that you cannot see. Miami-Dade’s DERM, which routinely tests the water quality at various points along all of Miami-Dade’s canals, reports in its most recent tests that 73 percent of the samples for the Little River Canal’s waters are “above the acceptable levels for Escherichia coli, more commonly known as E. coli, the bacterium commonly associated with fecal matter and bad food. The Biscayne Canal had a 60 percent rate, also higher than acceptable.

When I asked a DERM representative interpreting the results for me if this means I shouldn’t swim in the canals, he replied, “I wouldn’t!” And I came to agree with his conclusion after reading more: E. coli’s virulent strains can cause gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections, meningitis, and severe diarrhea, resulting in an estimated 500,000 annual deaths worldwide.

Beyond that, the canals are at constant risk of nutrient imbalances that contribute to algae blooms, seagrass die-off, and fish kills.

The culprits of this toxic brew are varied and still being debated. We can safely point to stormwater runoff that carries land pollutants into the canals. Fertilizers, both residential and commercial, that enter canal waters are a primary contributor to nutrient pollution. And then there are our septic systems, whose flooding, runoffs, and leaked contents seep right into these waterways…and voila…E. coli! Kristin McLean says that she saw a septic tank along a canal whose base had completely rotted out so that the contents were just sinking into the groundwater.

While awaiting governmental action, what’s one to do? Miami Waterkeepers, a clean-water advocacy organization, advises that we keep fertilizer and pesticide use to a minimum, plant native species, use mulch instead of herbicides to control weeds, maintain our septic tanks, and pick up our yard and pet waste.

But perhaps the very best thing residents can do for our canals’ well-being is to enjoy them. When we enjoy them, we’ll begin to value them. While somewhat polluted, they’re still safe for boating and serve as enjoyable hosts while we commune with nature. Nirvana awaits.

 

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