© The Royal Society of Chemistry 2015. Phenolic compounds are one of the main contaminants of soil and water due to their toxicity and persistence in the natural environment. Their presence is commonly determined with bulky and expensive instrumentation (e.g. chromatography systems), requiring sample collection and transport to the laboratory. Sample transport delays data acquisition, postponing potential actions to prevent environmental catastrophes. This article presents a portable, miniaturized, robust and low-cost microbial trench-based optofluidic system for reagentless determination of phenols in water. The optofluidic system is composed of a poly(methyl methacrylate) structure, incorporating polymeric optical elements and miniaturized discrete auxiliary components for optical transduction. An electronic circuit, adapted from a lock-in amplifier, is used for system control and interfering ambient light subtraction. In the trench, genetically modified bacteria are stably entrapped in an alginate hydrogel for quantitative determination of model phenol catechol. Alginate is also acting as a diffusion barrier for compounds present in the sample. Additionally, the superior refractive index of the gel (compared to water) confines the light in the lower level of the chip. Hence, the optical readout of the device is only altered by changes in the trench. Catechol molecules (colorless) in the sample diffuse through the alginate matrix and reach bacteria, which degrade them to a colored compound. The absorbance increase at 450 nm reports the presence of catechol simply, quickly (~10 min) and quantitatively without addition of chemical reagents. This miniaturized, portable and robust optofluidic system opens the possibility for quick and reliable determination of environmental contamination in situ, thus mitigating the effects of accidental spills.