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Matanzas Pass Channel awaits dredging permit

July 11, 2012
By BOB PETCHER, , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Fort Myers Beach has grown since Tropical Storm Debby brought high winds and strong tides to our little paradise.

Sand from the restored beachfront at Bowditch Point Regional Park has passed beyond the installed jetty and accumulated at Bowditch Point at the northern most part of Fort Myers Beach to add inches to the seven-mile-long island.

The shoaling action has also caused concern for larger vessels such as shrimp boats and cruise ships to navigate through Matanzas Pass Channel. Red channel marker #4 is actually on land during low tides.

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Channel marker #4 lies in shallow water at Bowditch Point two hours after low tide. At extreme low tide, the marker is beached.

Sea Tow has received phone calls since the storm has caused the channel to fill in.

"We are getting a lot of complaints that it is very shallow there. People are worried about it and are staying away from (the channel marker closer to the beachfront)," said Sea Tow's Heather Fabrizzi. "Our captains are kicking up mud when they go through there."

The filling-in of the well-used, navigable passageway has been ongoing since the 2011 Estero Island Restoration Project nourished the northern 1.2 miles of beachfront on Fort Myers Beach.

Marine Operations Manager Steve Boutelle of the Lee County Division of Natural Resources Division said his department has provided information to the US Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. Army Corps evaluations teams have looked into the situation.

"They already actually have a dredging permit application pending with the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection agency), so they are in the process of getting those permits squared away," he said. "I have not heard if they will have a survey team in to quantify it. The maintenance is something that is anticipated."

Boutelle said the permit process began before Tropical Storm Debby. He does not know if it qualifies for an emergency dredging, though he believes it has accelerated the process.

"There was still enough deep water to get the USS Mohawk out, " Boutelle quipped. "Shrimp boats drill up more than that, so to what extent that they are able to come and go safely will be one of the big question marks. I'm sure that the Coast Guard Station (Fort Myers Beach) will provide some feedback to the Army Corps as far as the safety situation there that might trigger some kind of emergency. If not an emergency, it has certainly expedited the schedule."

The channel was last dredged as an emergency case in 2009.

Jackie Keiser, US Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District representative, confirmed a small scale dredging operation should be expected in the coming weeks. Funding for the project needs to be identified before it moves forward.

"We are basically looking to do a dredging event there in late summer or early fall," she said. "We are trying to gather enough funding to do a small job to remove the critical shoals."

Keiser, who was the project coordinator for the emergency dredge three years ago, stated the deep-water portions would be dredged to prevent work obstruction of US Coast Guard Station Fort Myers Beach. The project may increase if the Army Corps receives emergency-type funds in responses to Tropical Storm Debby.

"We want to get as much as the shoaling as we can so that Coast Guard operations will not be affected as well as regular boater operations," she said. "If we did get additional funding, we'll do a larger-scale contract."

Army Corps workers were in Southwest Florida recently looking into beach erosion situations due to the past storm. Their post-storm impact reports specifically centered on Captiva beaches. Blind Pass is now ready to be dredged.

Back in December, Coastal Engineer Robert Neal, the restoration's project manager, stated he believed the US Coast Guard would replace the channel markers, which are pilings, with anchored floating buoys within a three-month period so that they could be moved more readily in the future.

"If we can realign the channel markers, we can direct these boats into deeper water," he said at the time.

Neal, who has since moved on to another job in North Carolina, then noted the channel had moved towards the north. The marker replacement did not occur and, now that the storm has pushed more sand into the channel, dredging appears to be the solution.

The Army Corps of Engineers did a survey and notified the US Coast Guard, which is in charge of the channel markers, of their findings. Unfortunately, navigation officials from US Coast Guard Stations St. Petersburg and Fort Myers Beach were unavailable for comment on such an undertaking.



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