Some of our readers have noticed some unusual looking boats anchored just offshore over the past few days. The boats are actually part of the Matanzas Pass dredging project, a maintenance project that’s being done as an emergency project as the channel has filled in to the point where it’s only 6 feet deep in some areas during low tide – creating a safety and navigational hazard. The project is being paid for by federal dollars, as the pass is part of a federally managed channel. This week, we looked into the project along with the status of two other areas local boaters say need to be dredged – Big Carlos Pass and a 2-mile stretch of channel in the back bay.
“Maintenance dredging of the Fort Myers Beach Harbor in Lee County is currently in progress and boaters are asked to use caution in the area,” said Susan Jackson of the Army Corps of Engineers. “Operations in the federal navigation channel near Bowditch Point started June 28 and will continue through early August.”
Jackson told us that the dredging would serve two purposes – improving navigation safety and also provide environmental benefits by placing dredged material near shore to nourish local beaches.
“Maintaining the channel’s authorized depth is vital to the U.S. Coast Guard Station there and supports its critical missions,” she said.
Matanzas Pass has been dredged numerous times over the years, with the most recent being in 2009 and again in 2012 after Tropical Storm Debby pushed a great deal of sand into San Carlos Bay. At that time, a request from the Town that the sand be placed at Newton Park was denied because it came too late.
Where the sand will be placed from the dredging project has been a topic of discussion between the Town and the county in recent months – including possibly Newton Park where the beach is quite narrow – but Commissioner Larry Kiker (who serves on the Board of Directors for the West Coast Inland Navigational District or WCIND – the governing body for projects like this) told us the placement will be in the ‘traditional area’ near Red Coconut.
“The sand will be pumped just offshore of the Lani Kai to Red Coconut so the sand will be filtered by the time it washes onto the beach,” Kiker said.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a $2,414,417 dredging contract in April to Southwind Construction Corp of Evansville, Indiana,” Jackson told us. “Southwind will dredge the federal channel to a 12-foot required depth plus 2 feet of allowable over-depth. The Corps estimates Southwind will dredge and pipe about 130,000 cubic yards of material into the near shore area located a quarter-mile southeast of the Fort Myers Beach Pier. This placement will naturally nourish area beaches.”
Jackson told us that the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and Lee County officials ask the public to use caution in the area during dredging operations and to always abide by safe boating rules.
“For notices to navigation, please call 863-983-8101,” she said. “For more information on Corps of Engineers projects in Florida and the Caribbean, visit www.saj.usace.army.mil.”
Big Carlos Pass
Moving to the opposite end of the island, the dredging of Big Carlos Pass is nearly through the permitting process.
A number of stakeholders – including Fish Tale Marina owner Al Durrett, Pam Keyes, Director of Lee County Utilities, Joanne Semmer of the Ostego Bay Foundation and many others – have been working hard for the past three years to get permitting approved for this critical pass at the island’s south end, that is also on the radar for dredging.
Kiker told us that the problem with Big Carlos is that – unlike Matanzas Pass -it’s never been dredged before, thus requiring a long list of approvals from various agencies.
“The Army Corps of Engineers told us (WCIND) that there is one major agency who haven’t sent their approvals in,” Kiker said. “A total of 72 agencies had to sign off on this project and we’re down to one. Representative Curt Clawson has been helping put pressure on these agencies to sign, and we are confident it will happen soon.”
Durrett is looking forward to getting the pass dredged, saying that right now conditions are ‘marginal at best’.
“We had a lot of stakeholders who got involved, and we took the right steps to make this happen,” he said. “We also had help from our congresspeople – along with Clawson, Florida Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson have helped our cause.”
Kiker told us that a WCIND meeting was held earlier this month and a discussion was held about doing projects like the dredging of Big Carlos Pass and New Pass – for which permitting is now complete – simultaneously so as not to pay the expenses associated with moving large amounts of equipment twice.
The good thing is, once these projects are complete, getting a maintenance permit for future dredging will be much simpler,” he said. “We are working hard and we will get this done.”
Last September, the Sand Paper reported that some local fishing captains were having trouble in the 2-mile stretch of Intracoastal Waterway between Snook Bight Marina and Fish Tale Marina. The problem was so bad that Fish Tale owner Al Durrett told us that the channel depth was reduced to less than 2 feet during strong winter low tides.
“That’s not even deep enough for a small boat to get through,” he said last year. “This needs to be kept at a normal depth. I’m not talking for shrimp boats – they don’t use BCP anymore – I mean for recreational boats. I know this is a protected area and we need to protect seagrass beds, I just think attention should be paid to make sure boaters have a chance to use the back bay too so long as they stay in the channel.”
“All of our boaters have issues now in that they have to wait for a certain time (and tide) so they can go north in the channel.”
Nearly a year later, nothing much has changed and boaters north of Fish Tale Marina are aware of the problem.
“Big Carlos Pass getting dredged doesn’t mean much to people who live on the remaining ¾ of the island not by Fish Tale Marina,“ said Larry Sincoskie, General Manager of Snook Bight Marina. “If they draw more than 3 feet, they can’t go south at low tide.”
Durrett told us that a group needs to get together and follow the same process done for Big Carlos Pass, though it doesn’t look as if WCIND and Lee County are onboard.
“It’s going to take that same type of work to get anything done in the back bay,” he said. “Once we get BCP open so people can get out, someone needs to look at that.”
Last year, WCIND Director Justin McBride told us that – while he is actively working with the DEP to get the No Internal Combustion Motor Zone (NICMZs) marked, he was unaware there was a problem in the back bay channel.
“My understanding of Estero Bay is it is the placement of the channel markers that is causing the problem – not the depth of the channel.”
Durrett said that the channel still needs to be worked on regardless of where the channel markers are.
“It’s a problem,” he said.
McBride – who was unavailable this week – told us last year that the WCIND would first have to be told from the county that there is a need before any plans to dredge would be made, after which they would pursue further permitting.
“If we hear from them that there is a problem there, then the next step would be to get federal permitting,” he told us.
We contacted Lee County, who confirmed that Florida Sea Grant channel assessments show that portions of that channel are at just 3 feet at low tide.
“This is not a new condition or a worsened condition,” said Communications Director Betsy Clayton.
Keri Hendry Weeg