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Life on the Little Muddy

Christian Byrd (center), bookended by uncle Alan (left) and father David (right), will be the third generation of the Byrd family to work on the Miami River
Steve Satterwhite

David Byrd has been around -- and in -- the Miami River for most of his 55 years, and he has one word for the river these days: "Garbage."

Byrd isn't talking about the actual floating detritus that plagues the 5.5-mile waterway. He uses the word to describe the long-heralded $66 million dredging project that promises to transform the river. Byrd, co-owner of Byrd Bros. Diving and Salvage, says the imminent dredging, which will be overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers, is unnecessary. "Sure, there's some muck along the sides of the river, but the bottom is clear clean water and sand, and it's fifteen feet deep, just like it's always been."

The people in charge of the project disagree. Dredging will not only clear the way for more boat traffic, they say, but it will clean out 800,000 cubic yards of zinc, mercury, and lead-infused sludge, eliminating decades of runoff from a river that winds through a good portion of Miami's urban core. Contracts for the project are out for bid right now, notwithstanding grumbling from river regulars like Byrd, who claims the dredging is just another way to line someone's pockets. Of course Byrd is generally skeptical of the government; so much so, in fact, that he prefers to work in international waters, unhindered by U.S. regulations. "You can't piss over the side of the boat without somebody trying to fine you," he grumbles.

There's a fundamental disconnect between Byrd, who is part of the second generation of Byrds to make a living on the river and whose son Christian will be the third, and the officials whose job it is to "manage" the river. Richard Bunnell, dredging point man for the Miami River Commission, a state-funded organization that is helping to supervise the project, says he takes Byrd's criticism (and not-too-subtle accusations) with a grain of salt. "Yeah, well, the river is famous as a conduit for rumors and theories," he shrugs. From Bunnell's point of view, the dredging project will open the river to large boats that now have to wait for high tide to dock, and clean out a lot of toxic muck, making the channel more economically viable for shipyards and more attractive to developers.

For Byrd, the river is a family heritage; almost anyone else is a Johnny-come-lately by comparison. His father Walter did salvage work with a river-based outfit in the Thirties, walking the river bottom and ocean floor in a canvas suit with lead-lined shoes, a hand pump on the ship feeding him air through a tube. As a child David Byrd swam in the river (he still dives it for work and fun), and later trained at a Navy dive school during a stint in the military. Today he works with laconic brother Alan in the salvage operation their father founded, retrieving out of the depths everything from crashed airplanes and sunken boats to cargo that slipped overboard. The brothers also have an uncharacteristically glamorous sideline -- renting equipment and lending expertise to Hollywood crews filming on the water.

The river has brought everything to the Byrds: a history, a business, and on one notable morning in 1985, three dead bodies. The corpses belonged to three men guarding a boat loaded with cocaine. They jumped into the river to get away from enterprising Miami police officers who raided the boat to steal the drugs. The men couldn't swim. Their trip down the river ended when they snagged on a boat in front of the Byrd brothers' boatyard. The careers of 80 Miami cops ended as a result of the subsequent corruption investigation.

Christian Byrd, 28 years old, says he plans on sticking with the family business. Like his dad, he's seen everything in the river, including cars, propellers, guns, even a delicate porcelain chicken. He also confirms his father's offhand remark about the clarity of the river water. "In the morning," he reports, "before the tugs start going by, it's clear enough to see fifteen feet to the bottom."

David Byrd remembers the Miami River's past, and he's pretty sure he can see its future: "Condos," he says, using the same growl he gave "garbage." Byrd imagines the river eventually becoming a concrete canal lined with high-rises. "It'll be like Miami Beach. I mean, the Beach is okay, but ..." He ends with a grunt that makes it clear he has no use for Miami Beach.

The Byrds' boatyard sprawls like a nautical yard sale along the river's south bank, east of Miami International Airport. Huge links of chain hang from iron bars, metal rods protrude from half-open shipping crates, boats of all sizes in all manner of disrepair sit on stands. David smiles as he thinks of the kind of deterrent a sight like that could be to any prospective condo-builders. Still the dredging will most likely happen, though the project's glacial pace lends credence to doubters. The bottom was first dredged to a depth of fifteen feet (the first and last dredging project on the river) in 1933, around the same time that Byrd's father was doing salvage work on a steam-powered derrick rig. Since then sediment from the Everglades and Miami's storm-water system, along with garbage and sewage, has been draining into the river and settling along its sides, creating a V-shaped river bottom that reaches fifteen feet deep only at its narrow center.

Dredging was first proposed by the late Congressman Claude Pepper in 1972, but the Army Corps of Engineers said it wasn't worth doing as long as there were large quantities of raw sewage and trash flowing into the river. It took another decade for local governments to improve drainage systems enough for the Corps to take another look. In 1990 it recommended dredging.

By that time, however, the Environmental Protection Agency had adopted stricter standards for dumping material in the ocean, and ruled that the river's contaminated sludge was too dirty to dump at sea. Once it was determined that the sediment would have to be dried and shipped to a landfill, the project's cost increased fivefold. "We've been looking at how to do that at a reasonable price," says David Miller, managing director of the Miami River Commission.

Miller says it's natural for business owners on the river to distrust the changes that are coming their way. "I come from the Northeast, and those guys who work on the river remind me of Northeastern fishermen: 'You can buy my fish if you want, but don't bother me.'"


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