Water, water everywhere – Impressions of a former hydrology student in Miami

When I flew into Miami for the first time this week, one of my initial impressions from the plane was the overwhelming presence of water throughout the city. Having spent the better part of my past two years studying hydrology at McMaster University, I was intrigued about the city’s water management strategy, and their use of these inland water systems.





The following map is a snapshot from Google Maps to give you an idea of my view from the clouds.

Miami, FL - Google Maps

Some of the many shapes and sizes of water bodies presiding throughout Miami

The Miami-Dade region is highly vulnerable to sea level rise, and may already be experiencing similar impacts, such as saltwater intrusion and severe flooding, through events such as tropical storms and high tides. That’s not to mention the other challenges of a large city, whose businesses and residents produce huge volumes of wastewater, and where runoff can introduce urban pollutants to neighboring waters – all this next to coastal ecosystems hosting a wealth of species, some of them endangered. Clearly there had been a need for politicians, engineers, industry, and scientists to work together on solutions for sustained water quality and quantity management, and I was curious as to what these groups had come up with.


Flooding in South Beach (Source)


The United States Geological Service (USGS) reports that the combination of a very flat surface with groundwater levels quite close to the surface has required man-made measures to alleviate flooding pressure (Hughes and White, 2014). The Miami Canal system, the largest piece of this management puzzle, has links and channels that interlace throughout the city and surrounding area, serving to drain and transport excess water to the Atlantic Ocean.

USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5162 Source: USGS Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5162

With the ongoing rain this time of year (i.e. the ‘wet season’), these channels are sure to be put to use – however it’s not only rainwater flowing from the streets to the ocean; pollutants are along for the ride. This brings us to…


According to the Miami-Dade government website, recreational use of the Biscayne Bay area (which includes the infamous South Beach) generates “$3.8 billion in economic output, $2.1 billion in income, and 57,000 jobs” (in US dollars). The authority recognizes that although much open water, such as in the dominant Biscayne Bay, has been found to meet/exceed set standards for human and wildlife alike, there are some areas with high concentrations of nutrients and bacteria, which points to sewage contamination. Many inland waters (i.e. channels of the canal system and Miami River) are designated as similarly inadvisable for use. Through discussions with Miami locals I’ve learned that the canals and inland lakes are known no-go zones, and the Bay is definitely used for swimming, kite surfing and the like, but with an element of suspicion. Perhaps a regularly updated public website with indicators of Biscayne Bay’s water quality would alleviate some concerns.

A balance between ecosystem preservation and human use

In addition to its lively metropolis, Southern Florida is well known for its treasured Everglades, home to invaluable wetlands and the accompanying wildlife.




Manatees, or Sea Cows, near the Everglades National Park (Source)

The same canal network that drains the Miami-Dade region has led to concerns about seepage of contaminated canal water into the park’s relatively pristine systems. To address this issue, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was implemented under the 2000 Water Resources Development Act. Kisekka et al. (2013) describe one example of action: the C111 spreader canal project is set to modify an existing channel separating the urban and agricultural areas located next-door to the park, to better prevent groundwater from seeping across. This quick examination of water management in the Miami area has, for me, illustrated some striking linkages between climate, hydrology, society and conservation, It will be exciting to see more of the story unfold as I spend more time in this dynamic city!


Hughes, J.D., and White, J.T., 2014, Hydrologic conditions in urban Miami-Dade County, Florida, and the effect of groundwater pumpage and increased sea level on canal leakage and regional groundwater flow: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5162, 175 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/sir20145162.
Kisekka, I., Migliaccio, K. W., Munoz-Carpena, R., Schaffer, B., & Li, Y. C. (2013). Dynamic factor analysis of surface water management impacts on soil and bedrock water contents in Southern Florida Lowlands. Journal of Hydrology488, 55-72.