Beach residents and other concerned parties are teaming up for a cause that has environmental, navigational, recreational and economical ramifications.
Big Carlos Pass, a popular boating access from Estero Bay to the Gulf at the end of Estero Island, is in need of a dredging operation. In 30 years time, parts of the pass have gone from as high as 20 feet deep to as low as 2.2 feet. That is not good for navigational passage.
Roughly 50 people gathered at Fish Tale Marina Thursday to unify for a prospective dredging project in a fourth meeting about the matter. Fish Tale owner Al Durrett, fellow International Board of Trade members and other stake holding officials spoke to interested Beach residents about the dire need to deepen the pass and the process needed to accomplish the task. The group included representatives from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection agency, Bonita Springs, Town of Fort Myers Beach, Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, U.S. Coast Guard, Lovers Key State Park and Senator Bill Nelson's office.
Kayakers cross Big Carlos Pass. Boats are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the pass due to sand filling in
Durrett's introductory Valentine's Day message was "Love The Bay." Action may take as long as three years due to red tape.
"I've watched this pass slowly close up for 28 years, and it is time to do something about it," he said. "We need to make sure this pass is kept open in a proper manner."
IBOT director Joanne Semmer pointed out that the filling in of the pass has a direct affect on the Back Bay's aquatic preserve.
"This would also affect the flushing action, the salinity and the oxygen levels," she said. "There is more than just one reason why we want to keep this pass open."
With a mission to educate and support best management and promotional practices for a healthy environmentally sustained waterfront community, the San Carlos & Estero Islands Waterfront Partnership group is looking to form an alliance and face the Lee County Board of County Commissioners at a future meeting to get its point across.
"Most of us know that pass because we go in and out of there, but boats that are unfamiliar with the area will find it dangerous," said Beach resident John Hawkinson. "It's an issue. The longer we wait, the more sand comes along."
Beach residents recognize this is the worst Big Carlos Pass has been. At the beachfront at Island's End condominiums, there has been a drastic difference in 30 years time.
"In 1982, this was seven feet deep, now it's dry land," said Semmer.
"Seems to me, there needs to be an understanding of the dynamics that caused this pass to be filled in so quickly," said Beach resident Tom Babcock.
"The value of my house and boat slip depends on the quality of the Back Bay," said Bob Miller. "When I go through that channel, it is dangerous because there isn't a lot of room to maneuver."
"I don't know why there is so much attention given to Blind Pass," said Beach resident Joel Rudy. "The thing that bothers me the most is that this is the only pass (with access to the Gulf) in this area that has a drawbridge, so the potential is phenomenal."
Beach resident Joanne Shamp believes there should be coordination between a dredging of Big Carlos Pass and a beach restoration at Lovers Key State Park. If compatible, sand dredged from the pass could be a sand source for the park restoration.
"Obviously, there has to be some correlation there," she said. "This is reminiscent of the north end (of Estero Island) and what has transpired there."
Town officials are ready to help push a prospective dredging forward. Town Manager Terry Stewart said Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen and Lee County Marine Services Operations Manager Steve Boutelle spent many hours charting the pass. The charting matched data provided by Power Squadron member Ted Lawwill.
"In one area, if you stray too far over in the channel, it goes from five to six feet to less than a foot," said Stewart. "We need to relocate the buoys."
Stewart highly recommends everyone concerned should call or send letters to the County commissioners, especially Dist. 3 commissioner Larry Kiker.
"You need to voice your concerns. The County will have to take the lead," he said. "It's going to take all of us to go over to a commission meeting and let them know something has to be done. Those that are making the decisions need to know the dynamics of this pass."
Florida DEP South District Director Jon Iglehart confirmed Stewart's procedural recommendations.
"Our goal is to get the application processed and out the door to be consistent with the funding of the individual project," he said. "We will work with you all the way."
Durrett told a recent story about a Key West boat captain who refused to take Big Carlos Pass to come to Fish Tale Marina due to "dangerous" conditions for the owner's boat.
"That is terribly horrible for our island reputation," he said. "A 53-foot Hatteras boat needs 4-1/2 feet of water to pass. That's not really a big boat compared to others. We have a drawbridge there that doesn't seem to get used much anymore."
"Every boat is a economic generator," Semmer added. "They pay marina fees, boat ramp fees, buy gas and hire mechanics."
Further south, New Pass is also in danger of closing up. At a prior meeting, Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson suggested an implemented program to lump New Pass, Lovers Key and Big Carlos Pass together.
Taxes are paid to West Coast Inland Navigation District, Army Corps of Engineers and Florida state bodies to help maintain area passes.
"Hopefully, we can find funding," said Semmer.
A follow-up meeting has been scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 21, at 9 a.m. at the Fish Tale Marina Office. The DEP has requested a decision on the three most critical issues for Estero Bay and Big Carlos Pass.
History of Back Bay
The Spaniards came through Big Carlos pass in the 1500s, when they occupied Mound Key. In fact, school children were taken by boat to Mound Key, which housed the first school in Lee County.
"There is so much history involved with the pass," said Semmer. "When the drawbridge was built in he 1960s, there was anticipation that larger boats could use that pass. As a kid, I remember shrimp boats going through there. We really need to keep this pass open."