Help should be on the way for the boating public and environmentalists regarding a key navigational passageway south of our barrier island.
Last week, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners approved adding "channel depth improvements" to Big Carlos Pass by creating a separate capital improvement plan for channel dredging there. County staff will now define a scope of work for that project including probable costs and potential funding and cost share opportunities for future BoCC approval.
Big Carlos Pass, a popular boating access from Estero Bay to the Gulf at the end of Estero Island, has been in need of a dredging operation for some time. In 30 years time, concerns have been expressed about the narrowing of the pass where depths have gone from as high as 20 feet deep to as low as 2.2 feet at low tide in some parts.
A boat passes under the bridge at Big Carlos Pass where County officials recently approved a permit for “channel depth improvements” and the United States Army Corps of Engineers anticipate an eight- to 12-month period for permitting review and approval for a proposed dredge.
"That problem has been there for a long, long time," said Lee County Commission Chairman Larry Kiker. "I'm glad we are finally going to do something about it."
While it is not a commercial pass, U.S. Coast Guard boats may have to and larger boats still must navigate through a reported bump in the middle portion of Big Carlos Pass to get back into boating lanes within Estero Bay. There is a drawbridge there after all.
"It's great to be backed by Lee County to start this project to open up Big Carlos Pass," said Fish-Tale Marina owner Al Durrett. "It's going to take a little time, but we will not be left out in the dark with a shallow pass."
According to County records, the United States Army Corps of Engineers have informed County staff to anticipate an eight- to 12-month period for permitting review and approval for a proposed dredge. In the meantime, a County CIP could be established and funding identified for costs for professional services for design and permitting.
Records say design and permitting costs are estimated at $115,000, while construction is estimated to be between $562,000 and $1,100,000, based on past dredging projects. Construction funds may be available through sources such as the West Coast Inland Navigation District and vessel registration fees. WCIND funds cannot be used for pre-construction design and permitting tasks.
Kiker, the Lee County representative for WCIND, is one of five or six reps from different counties that will be requesting funds. He hopes some money comes our way.
"It's safe to say that I am going to make sure that the project gets reviewed," he said.
Earlier last month, Kiker discussed issues relating to beach nourishment projects at Lovers Key State Park and Bonita Beach and channel dredging projects during a BoCC meeting. He raised issues about potential efficiencies gained by combining these projects to provide sand from channel dredging for beach nourishment to save time and costs.
During the recent County meeting, one option presented was to put a hold on the aforementioned nourishment projects, modify permits for the affected borrow areas, then approve a change order to a contract to be used for professional services to complete design and permitting of an additional "borrow" area within the Big Carlos Pass channel alignment. County staff did not recommend that action, but instead pushed to proceed with the current nourishment projects with no further delay and concurrently work on obtaining the dredge project.
"What we found out was that if we did any amendments to the existing permit, it would cause an eight to 12 month delay," said Kiker. "That could be significant, especially if you start messing around with sea turtle season."
Questions were posed as to why the borrow site couldn't be from Big Carlos Pass. Unfortunately, now that permits specifically state where sand must come from, answers appear to be (excuse the expression) water under the bridge.
Now that the dredging project is County approved, the process will include acquiring a stand-alone dredging permit for a more permanent solution and future maintenance. Kiker also requested that County staff investigate whether the County should create an in-house dredging program.
"If we do this right, we won't have to go back and do this every few years," he said.
"I'd like to see a program in effect for the whole County from Boca Grande to Bonita Beach, so that we don't have to go through this permitting every time there is a problem. I think we are on the same page there," added Durrett. "This dredging will help property values and boating in Southwest Florida in general."
Kiker, a Beach resident and former charter captain, knows the importance of open channels that affects not only the Beach, but Bonita Springs and any recreational boater who visits Southwest Florida.
"From a personal level, I had to move my boat to the other end of the island because I couldn't do business. And, that was 15 years ago now," he said. "I know for a fact that the problem has been around for at least that long."
Kiker credits Durrett and neighboring stakeholders for calling attention to the matter.
"They did the work needed so that it could be justified and approved," he said. "My hats off to those stakeholders and (Beach) Mayor (Alan Mandel) as well. We would not be where we are if it hadn't been for the work by that group.
Mandel stated the acknowledgement and cooperation should be spread to Durrett, concerned boaters, County manager Roger Desjarlais, Kiker and new interim Town Manager Don Stilwell. Those officials and others met at Fish-Tale Marina last Monday to review the options that were on the table.
"This is certainly a safety issue and an economic issue," Mandel said.
According to Mandel, the meeting officials agreed that option #2 (the one chosen) seemed most appropriate.
"That's because not only do we have a permit for it, future maintenance can be taken care of," he said.
Beach officials had studies done about longshore sentiment transport from beaches to passes and tide and current influence on beaches. Coastal & Harbor Engineering made a presentation at a Council meeting Jan. 21 as a way to look into alternatives to the traditional beach nourishment techniques. The presentation was recapped by Town Environmental Sciences Coordinator Keith Laakkonen at the marina meeting.
"I think that it was appropriate to share that with them," said Mandel. "Now, we need to work with the County on getting dredging permits modified for Matanzas Pass so that we can place the sand from there to where we need it for beach nourishment."
This is just another project where County and Town relations proper.
"It's been easy for me to work with folks that have been on the Council for the past year to talk about how to bring these projects forward so that they qualify at the County level," said Kiker. "There is evidence in how they have begun to start the water projects, funding for Estero Boulevard and this project. Everything that is good for our Town is good for our County."