Big Carlos Pass Big Dig: Pass’ First-Ever Dredging


    One of Estero Island’s most iconic waterways will soon receive its first-ever dredging in what officials hope will be a two-for-one project to save taxpayer dollars.

    “We open bids for the dredging of Big Carlos Pass and New Pass on Friday afternoon, January 6,” says Justin McBride, executive director of the West Coast Inland Navigation District (WCIND) that is in charge of the work. “We budgeted $2.5-million for both but hope one company wins the low bid because we may save money by keeping the equipment and crews in one area, as Big Carlos and New Passes are so close. Over 20 companies took out bid packets so we are optimistic.”

    Dredging will remove an estimated 66,000 cubic yards of sand and shell debris from New Pass, with an additional 64,000 cubic yards from Big Carlos. “That is really not that much when you consider the size of the channel,” explains Justin, “or you compare it with the Lovers Key renourishment from several years back that accounted for over 300,000 cubic yards. This 130,000 will replenish barrier island beaches that constantly erode. New Pass sand will go to Lovers Key, while Big Carlos will add to Fort Myers Beach, much of which the State defines as being in the critically-eroded zone.”

    Cranes, barges and underwater vacuums will remove sediment, sand and salt that over decades drifted into the channel, making it too shallow for large boats and even some recreational boats. Work on Big Carlos Pass is between Estero and Black Islands, while New Pass separates Lovers Key and Big Hickory Island. “These blockages are simply in places that are not good for navigation,” Justin said. “This is the first time in decades there will be dredging for New Pass and to our knowledge the initial one for Big Carlos Pass. This is at heart a safety issue; the channel is too narrow, too shallow and too dangerous, as at low tide it often gets as low as two feet from the bottom.”

    Shifting Sands

    Justin relates that “this is a coastal system and, as such, the beach changes every day, meaning the passes do as well. To boaters, however, it is essential to be able to pass through the sandbars. Lee County did a great job for a long time to keep the channel open but now boats have great difficulty moving through it. Water that originally formed the channel followed the flow that traditionally takes it out to the pass, but since the sand always shifts, the County constantly had to remark it to show the best route.”

    It took over 2-1/2 years to obtain all the paperwork to proceed. “We did the engineering well in advance, so we know exactly where to dredge,” Justin adds. “We are not doing this blindly, having already obtained the permits, so we can begin almost immediately once we choose the contractor. It takes so long to receive authorization because we must have the approval of the Army Corps of Engineers, and their process alone involves dozens of federal agencies all signing off in agreement.”

    Plans call for the dredging of sand from the Big Carlos Pass alone, as there is already deep water on each side of it, from Estero Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. “We will make a straight line connection through Big Carlos, as opposed to the current S-shape route that is especially troublesome for large vessels.” Engineers determined it would be more expensive, more troublesome, and less efficient to dredge the current route rather than simply digging out the channel straight between the two deep water resources.

    A Great Idea!

    “We refer to this as ‘Advance Maintenance Dredging,’ says Justin. “In this method, crews dredge out more than we need because some of it will settle throughout the process, so when the channel is done we will still have more than enough room, and can go longer into the future between dredgings. It is a great idea!”

    The WCIND appreciates the invaluable assistance it received from the Gulf Coast delegation in Washington D.C., particularly Congressman Curt Clawson and Senator Bill Nelson, and credits Lee County commissioner and former Fort Myers Beach mayor Larry Kiker for leading the local effort. Justin will not know the estimated completion date until after the bid opening and meeting to negotiate with the eventual low-bid contractor as to when they can begin.

    WCIND is a multi-county special taxing authority, much like a mosquito control district, that covers over one million residents in Charlotte, Lee, Manatee and Sarasota Counties. These member agencies collaborate closely, to best benefit from the available resources afforded by this regional approach.

    The Florida Legislature established the WCIND in 1947 to compliment the United States Army Corps of Engineers with planning, construction and maintenance of the 152-mile, 100-foot-wide, 9-foot-deep Gulf Intercoastal Waterway (GICW) between the Anclote and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Over the decades its responsibilities expanded to include navigation projects, waterway research, erosion studies, environmental stewardship and restoration, inlet management, boating safety, abandoned vessel removal and the posting of channel markers and manatee protection speed enforcement zones, as well as cruising, sailing, fishing and eco-exploring activities. “We are a very active program,” exclaims Justin!

    The WCIND plays a pivotal role in waterway projects that promote safe navigation from the Gulf of Mexico through the GICW, while supporting boating, fishing, and beach-oriented projects. It helps county and local governments maintain and enhance public navigation channels and inlets, boating access facilities, waterfronts, parks, and pier and similar structures. For Big Carlos and New Pass dredging updates see


    Gary Mooney