This is Fort Lauderdale's signature image -- its "Venice of America" persona that covers for a city actually crisscrossed with more crime than canals. But this representation is what the tourists come to see. This is Las Olas Isles, better known locally as the Shit Isles.
For six years environmentalists with Broward County's Department of Natural Resource Protection (DNRP) have accused the people who live aboard sailboats docked in the Isles of polluting the canals by literally emptying their toilets into the water. Levels of pollution, specifically levels of a bacteria associated with disease-carrying matter, are higher in the Isles than in any other part of the city.
But now water-sample data is beginning to reveal that the DNRP has unfairly targeted the inhabited sailboats as the primary polluters.
A year ago the city passed a law forcing property owners in the Isles to install pump-out stations at every dock and requiring every inhabited boat to hook into it when docked. With at least 70 percent of the pumps installed and a majority of boats hooked into the city sewer system, the canal water is not much better now than when testing began in 1992, according to data compiled by both the City of Fort Lauderdale and the DNRP.
Cal Landau, an apartment building owner on Hendricks Isle who has been arguing for years that the live-aboards are not to blame for polluting the water, can barely contain his told-ya-so glee as he pores over the city and DNRP data. By blaming the live-aboards for polluting the water, Landau believes the DNRP has ruined Fort Lauderdale's signature neighborhood's reputation.
"They have been so incompetent, so malicious in attacking us without the grounds to do so," Landau says of DNRP officials. Landau has five boat slips behind his apartment building that he rents to live-aboards. "We are known around the city as the Shit Isles now. That's not nice. It's chased away business, boaters that should be renting slips."
The canals around the Isles are ripe with fecal coliform, a bacteria that shows up in huge numbers when feces from warm-blooded mammals are present. Human fecal matter is also known to spread serious intestinal diseases, such as salmonella and cholera, through water.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has set a limit of 200 colonies of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters of water for a waterway to be considered safe for swimming. If water samples reflect more than 400 colonies per 100 milliliters, the water is considered polluted.
Four of Fort Lauderdale's waterways register more than 400 colonies of fecal coliform: the north fork of the New River, a portion of the Intracoastal Waterway near Bahia Mar Marina, and two canals in the Isles -- the Grand Canal, which runs north and south between Hendricks Isle and the Isle of Venice to the east, and the Rio Cervantes, which lies east of the Isle of Venice.
The data announcing that Rio Cervantes registers over 400 and therefore is polluted is new, compiled since late last year by the City of Fort Lauderdale. It is significant to Landau because the Rio Cervantes has half as many live-aboards as the Karen Canal, on the west side of Hendricks Isle. If the live-aboards were the primary cause of pollution in the canal network around Las Olas Isles, the areas with more boats should be more polluted, he contends. If the live-aboards were to blame, fecal coliform levels should have dropped now that more than 70 percent of boats moored on the isles are connected to the city sewer system and not dumping in the waterway. (Landau argues that the 70 percent hook-up figure is misleading because most of the boats not hooked up are not inhabited and don't contribute to pollution.)
Landau takes a breath from his rapid-fire assault of the DNRP's theory that the live-aboards pollute the water, lifts his white-haired head high, and states firmly: "DNRP is wrong."
His assertion is gaining support. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle, who chairs the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources committee of the National League of Cities, says the city's own sewer system is more likely to blame.
"Las Olas Isles is a very special place, but it's sinking," Naugle says. "The houses are on pilings so they are fine, but the ground is giving way. The sewer connections are not on pilings. As the road sinks, the pipes go, too.
"A lot of [DNRP's] decisions aren't based on science, they are based on hunches," Naugle claims. "And their hunches aren't that good. In the rest of the world, [pollution] comes from a lot of sources. In Fort Lauderdale it comes from live-aboards. And that's kind of killing the goose that lays the golden egg."
City Public Services Director Greg Kisela says city engineers and DNRP officials dug six monitoring wells on both islands and found no evidence sewage was leaking into the groundwater and making its way into the canals. More than $10 million has been spent in the Isles in the past six years to upgrade aging sewer lines, Kisela says, and he insists the city's sewers are not leaking.
"Then we're the only city in America that has sewers that don't leak," Naugle says. "Fecal coliform is present in water all across America. We may be making the situation worse by hooking them into the sanitary sewer system."
Just what is causing the pollution is still unclear. Besides the few groundwater samples taken and fecal coliform statistics compiled, other sources aren't being studied in the Isles. A few miles inland, on the north fork of the New River, University of Miami scientists who have been studying the water for two years have eliminated both the live-aboards off Broward Boulevard and the sewer system from the list of primary polluters of the water there. A new theory has emerged for that relatively natural stretch of the river -- bacteria may live and reproduce in the soil along the banks and get washed into the river with each high tide and each rain. No such theory exists in the man-made Isles, where the banks are made of concrete. Landau hopes to get scientists to research the Isles to determine the source of the fecal coliform.
Meanwhile the DNRP, which last month sent the city a threatening letter to get all live-aboards hooked up or else, won't admit it may be wrong, despite the data. They're sticking to their story that the live-aboards are to blame.
"The quantity of bacteria in fecal matter is astronomical," says George Riley, DNRP's director of environmental monitoring. "It just takes very little to severely impact water quality. Until we have full confidence that that's under control, I'm not willing to let [the live-aboard theory] go yet. We're doing the best we can, looking at all the data," he says. "We're trying to let the data speak for itself."
That's fine with Landau and other critics of the DNRP who insist the data speak loud and clear -- the live-aboards are innocent.
"The amount of contamination from these boats couldn't possibly cause the level of contamination in the river," insists Landau, a retired civil engineer. "Look, we're happy to be hooked up and done with. But we still have the cause. It's got to be fixed, and they're wasting time looking at the boats.