El Portal calls itself a modern-day Garden of Eden. The tiny village boasts a canopy of oak trees, a portion of the Little River frequented by manatees, and an official designation as a bird sanctuary.
It'd be a fitting nickname, except for one thing: The rivers in Paradise probably weren't packed with floating islands of trash. In the part of the Little River that flows through El Portal, water bottles, takeout containers, and all manner of garbage drift through the water and get tangled in booms meant to block off powerful dams. And lately, the floating heap of refuse has been worse than ever, residents and the South Florida Water Management District agree.
"It's dumpsters and dumpsters and dumpsters full of trash," says resident Ian Hayes, whose home sits on the river.
Frustrated community members have been making calls to village officials, and they're working with the Little River Conservancy to plan a meeting on the issue, though no date has been set.
Randy Smith, a spokesperson for the water management district, says the area has long been a problem because people keep dumping trash into the river despite educational campaigns and the threat of fines. The problem has worsened lately because of heavy rains, which have caused faster-moving water that picks up debris and pushes it against the dam, and strong winds, which have blown more garbage into the river.
"This area, quite frankly, is always problematic for us because it's a very heavily urban area," Smith says. "We end up cleaning this area out more frequently than any of the others simply because of the amount of debris that's thrown into the water."
But Hayes says the cleanups, which Smith says happen about twice a year, clearly aren't cutting it. By the time a water management barge comes through to clear the debris, it's built up to obscene levels. The muck floats along the river in giant clumps. Lately, it's been accompanied by a smell Hayes calls horrendous — "like a sewage truck overturned in your driveway."
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Residents worry about how the garbage might impact the wildlife the village prides itself on, from manatees to birds to turtles.
"The wildlife aspect of it is definitely disheartening," Hayes says. "Especially when you see turtles floating down the river in piles of trash and birds walking on trash in the middle of the river."
This week, the water management district has had two of its boats on the river to clear the trash. That's a welcome sight, but Haynes says that unless the cleanups become more regular, the problem is bound to return — and probably soon.
"It's only a matter of time before it happens again," he says. "And unfortunately, it'll probably be within the next couple of weeks."