The Blind Pass dredging project is due to start as soon as a window of weather permits the equipment to move in.
The opening of the Blind Pass waterway will help maintain water clarity to encourage the survival of sea life, protect shorebirds that depend on the beaches for life and allow visitors and residents to enjoy the high quality of life that exists with fishing, shelling and boating in this area.
This is a tremendous effort of cooperation and communication between all departments who are working diligently to complete this project with the least environmental impact on the area or harm to any wildlife.
The pass closed completely and was formally reopened after an extensive dredging project in July 2009. Since that time, the natural ebb and flow typical of barrier islands has caused additional sand deposits to accumulate, blocking the waterway to boaters, and stopping the water flow causing decreased water quality that nourishes important sea grass growth.
Safe dredging efforts, consideration of the people and shore life affected, and increasing the water clarity and flow which nourish the sea grass and species of sea life are all part of the goals to be accomplished.
"We began monitoring for this project on April 15 so that we could determine that any nests within the dredging construction zone could be relocated before the nests are laid," said Amanda Bryant, SCCF biologist who coordinates sea turtle research and monitoring. "Usually we start watching for the start of nest formation around April 15, and the first nest appeared on Captiva on April 20, which was early, and is a sign of a very active turtle nesting season. The monitoring is done by SCCF employees and specially trained volunteers who work diligently to monitor these nests. Since the turtles are nesting earlier this year, it has caused extra work to make sure all nests are secure, but we wouldn't have it any other way. Our county also takes the protection very seriously and the dredging company is well informed on the nesting habits locally, so we are very lucky."
SCCF, Florida Dredge and Docks, and the Lee County Resources Division have been working closely together. The Lee County Resources Division has provided information on the exact location of any dredging that would affect the beach and SCCF is using that information to relocate any nests that may be affected by the construction long before actual construction will start. In addition, all data on this project is reported to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation on special forms so the impact of construction in protected areas is monitored by the state and studied for the future.
Those nests that beach walkers will see from Blind Pass south that haven't been moved, have been determined free of the construction zone, and additional signage and enlarged fenced areas are clearly marked so that they are visible to the construction trucks.
The turtles are not restricted in any way in their nest formation. If any do nest in the construction zone, protection is taken to remove the nest safely from the area and relocated to a safe area where they are monitored from that point on. This process started before the project and will continue throughout construction until completion.
"We also started monitoring shore birds a couple of weeks before the project we can't move the nest, but can notify the contractor of the nests and each truck on the beach has a chick steward to walk ahead of the machinery to make sure it is clear of chicks and nests," said Bryant. "The fences are extended and everything is noticed to the contractors of all shore nesting of all animals by our department. The extreme cooperation between the county, dredging and SCCF has been outstanding, and we don't anticipate any issues with regard to communication between departments. We call every morning before 8 a.m. to let them know of new findings. Although the work goes on 24 hours a day, movement and work on the beach is restricted to day time so there is no effect on the shore life. We also give an all clear in the morning if there are any issues so that the contractor is notified they need to stay away from an area until noticed. Our goal is to carry out the needed project with minimal impact to the life on shore."
Dr. Eric Milbrandt, Marine Lab Director for SCCF, shared the results of a two-year study that SCCF has done on water quality before and after the pass was opened in 2009. The baseline conditions were published in a paper by Elsevier, coauthored by Milbrandt, entitled "Local and regional effects of reopening a tidal inlet on estuarine water quality, sea grass habitat, and fish assemblages."
In a nutshell, Dr. Milbrandt said they found an increase in transparency of the water in the pass, and sea grass started growing again. It has increased and SCCF is hoping to get a post opening footprint which will be important in determining the growth of sea life. Based on the findings so far, the overall production of the water system is higher since the pass reopened in 2009.
There are no previous studies with this intensity of sampling, both before and after an inlet opening. This study indicated that any changes that occurred as a result of this opening were confined to the immediate area of the opening, however, it is felt it may take years to determine whether this change affects a larger area. Samplings were taken on both sides of the opening, reaching out into the Gulf and into Pine Island Sound.
The general public and fishing enthusiasts are concerned with algae blooms. While that is affected by things other than the closed pass, Dr. Milbrandt indicated the unattached algae blooms on the bayside of the pass were lower after the pass opened than before it was dredged.
Dr. Milbrandt feels, based on their water quality studies, that the pass being open definitely improves the water quality, flow quality and improvement of habitat in the pass which encourages sea grass growth (declining throughout Pine Island Sound). This, in turn, is an attractive habitat for the growing sea life that depends on the sea grass for food and protection until it is large enough to fend for itself.
According to Steve Boutelle, operations manager for the Lee County Resources Division, the funding for this project differs from the last dredging project that was done at Blind Pass. The prior project cost was shared between county, state and CEPD (Captiva Erosion Prevention District). CEPD is not cost sharing on this project all management and funding of this project is coming from the county with additional state funding that is surplus left over from the prior projects.
Boutelle said, "We are very pleased with the pricing we got because we were able to negotiate with Florida Dredge and Dock since they still had their equipment in the area from the Fort Myers Beach dredging project. We saved an estimated half million dollars off the usual mobilization charge."
"This is a good opportunity some feedback has been why we are dredging so soon," said Boutelle. "The answer is that we had this unique opportunity with dredging equipment and funds in place. As a destination, the use of Blind Pass is much higher when it is open with the water flow for fishing and shelling than it is when it is closed. We have never anticipated that we would be able to walk away from Blind Pass and have it remain open and viable. There is good support from all the local government entities that Blind Pass be open. We are aware that some regular maintenance is required as long as there is a policy position in place to keep the pass open. With that in place, we will be monitoring and planning for regular maintenance over time. "
For the benefit of loyal Blind Pass beachgoers, shellers and fishermen, the time frame is to move the equipment to the site as soon as the contractor is confident they have a better weather window. At that point, they will move the dredge from Redfish Pass where it currently is waiting to be taken to Blind Pass.
Dredging will then commence on the seaward side and work toward the bridge.
"We would like to make people aware that there will be a period of time that the bridge is posted for no fishing when the dredge gets closer to the bridge for safety in a construction zone," Boutelle said. "We appreciate the cooperation of fisherman in this down time for fishing from the bridge, but will try to post signs and notices so fishermen know the bridge is not accessible as soon as the dredging is ready to start."
Construction will continue until the end of August and be ready for the tourist season this fall. Bowman's Beach will benefit the dredged sand in the area that has eroded so that is an added benefit for visitors to Bowman's Beach where there has been significant erosion.