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Blind Pass project nears completion, to open in June

By Staff | May 13, 2009

During the monthly meeting of the Captiva Erosion Prevention District (CEPD), Robert Neal of the Lee County Department of Natural Resources and project manager of the reopening of Blind Pass gave an in-depth presentation to a large assembly of interested island residents and organizations as to the status of the Blind Pass project.

The Bayous Preservation Association, the Captiva Community Panel, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, Captiva Island Yacht Club, C.R.O.W., People United to Restore our Rivers and Estuaries (PURRE) and the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce were only part of the large assemblage of island organizations and businesses that turned up to hear Neal speak and to ask him questions about the project.

CEPD administrator Kathy Rooker was thrilled with the turnout and said that she is very grateful for not only the interest of island residents in the project, but their unwavering support.

“The CEPD is so thankful for Captivans’ support and the enthusiasm that residents of Captiva and Sanibel have shown for this project,” she said. “Without that, none of this could have happened.”

Neal also expressed his gratitude to all the people who helped bring the project to fruition.

“I have to thank the CEPD for their help in this, the City of Sanibel and Alison Hagerup [former CEPD administrator] especially. Because of her pushing the CEPD and then pushing the county, it’s the reason this project is being done,” Neal said during his opening comments.

Neal’s presentation started with a comprehensive overview of Blind Pass and the previous attempts at reopening it.

“Looking at the history of the Pass, I think everyone here can relate that it is a very vital part of our everyday life and our ecosystem in Pine Island Sound, Wulfert Channel and Roosevelt Channel,” he said. “When we look at the history of Blind Pass, it’s always been sort of an unstable inlet, dating back to the early 1920s and it’s been closed roughly half the time since the 1940s.”

According to Neal, the CEPD and the City of Sanibel began a project in 2000 to open Blind Pass.

“They wanted to dredge into Roosevelt Channel, come around Albright Key and into Sunset Bayou and that is very similar to what we’re dredging now.

The problem is, Roosevelt Channel and Sunset Bayou are in what the State defines as an aquatic preserve. State rules require new dredging in aquatic preserves to be strongly discouraged. In other words, you have to prove you absolutely need it in order to accomplish the project and that the project is clearly in the public interest,” Neal explained, noting that those two rules play a key role in the permitting process.

“Proving that it’s in the public interest does not necessarily mean everyone around it wants it. It means the State of Florida regulatory offices get to make that judgement call,” he added. “We had to show them it meets those criteria and, at the time of the 2000 project, we couldn’t do that.”

One effective way of determining public interest is through water quality.

“One of the problems we had at the beginning [of the 2008-09 project] was proving that the project was in the public interest. We did not have the data to show what water quality was when the pass was open so we had nothing to relate the water quality to when it was closed, so we couldn’t say it would be better,” Neal said, adding that thanks to local efforts, local participation from the SCCF and the BPA, a water quality data base is in the works and will prove essential in comparing quality once the pass is open.

“I think that showed tremendous foresight and determination by the local groups,” Neal noted, commending the BPA for their interest and dedication.

Because of their intentions to dredge into the aquatic preserve, those handling the 2000 project were only permitted to dredge seaward of the Blind Pass bridge. They intended to remove 80,000 cubic yards but were only able to remove about one-quarter of that amount.

“Our consultants, and really anyone who looked at the plan, knew it wasn’t going to work and the state said ‘Let’s see, let’s try it.’ Well, a week after we did it, a storm came in and closed it up,” he said.

But the original project, Neal explained, allowed them to move onto the next phase in continuing the pursuit of reopening the pass.

“Rob Loflin of the City of Sanibel had an idea to restore flushing and stormwater releases in Clam Bayou through the installation of a culvert connection under San-Cap Road. To further enhance that project, we would open Blind Pass so that flushing could circulate into Dinkins Bayou and Clam Bayou. The water would actually exchange in those areas once every five days versus never. The city installed the culvert and the County and CEPD said they’d handle the opening of the pass,” said Neal, adding that through the permitting process and working with federal agencies to maintain that pass opening, Lee County, the City of Sanibel and the CEPD entered into an interlocal agreement stating that the City’s part in the plan was to install the culvert and the CEPD and the County would handle the opening of the pass and the maintenance thereof.

But Neal said people were skeptical at first.

“Everyone looked at that and the biggest question was, why is this project that we’re doing now different from what we did in 2000? The intent is not different, but the construction is,” he added.

Sanibel completed the culvert installation in 2006, which left the County and the CEPD to finish their task with the opening of Blind Pass.

“As we started into the project, we defined our goals. What we want to accomplish with this and how do we proceed,” Neal said.

The goals Neal listed were:

A stable opening for at least five years

Increased water circulation in Clam and Dinkins Bayous

Improved habitats for mangroves, seagrasses, shore birds, Benthic invertebrates and fisheries

Enhanced recreational opportunities

Supplementing storm protection

Continuing a long-term management program that maintains Blind Pass and the surrounding ecosystem.

What followed then was acquiring all of the necessary permits to, as he put it, “really get the ball rolling.”

“We wanted to take a direct approach with the permitting agencies, kind of a hands-on method. We wanted to be out there with the staff to do the environmental assessments so that we could communicate our local interests. We brought federal and state agencies down and we showed them the site [and] everyone was in favor,” said Neal.

By doing these hands-on site investigations, Neal says they were able to identify a lot of habitat destruction proposed in the original design.

“We looked at all of the habitat we’d be dredging through – segrass habitat, invertebrate habitat, mangroves – and said ‘Can we do less?'” he explained.

So Neal and his colleagues went back to the drawing board and created a new plan that significantly cut down on habitat impacts, but not entirely.

In total, 0.72 acres of seagrass, 0.15 acres of mangrove, 0.24 acres of beach elder and 1.3 acres of sea turtle nesting habitat are affected by the project.

As mitigation for the removal of the beach elder, the County removed more than 100 Australian Pines from the ‘Tween Waters stretch of Captiva Drive and the Alison Hagerup Beach Access at the north end of the island.

Mangrove mitigation will take place in Clam Bayou and along the edges of Roosevelt Channel, in the hopes that the mangroves will act as shoreline stabilizers and prevent erosion.

“Something interesting we’re seeing is these mangroves are actually coming back on their own in Clam Bayou,” Neal said. “With the culvert connection and stormwater being able to be released and some flushing coming in from Pine Island Sound, the mangroves are re-establishing and growing there. They’ve had a little bit of help, but we’re glad to see that they are coming back on their own through a natural process.”

However, the big mitigation issue pertained to segrasses.

“It was hard to come up with something that the state would agree with. What we proposed finally, and that they accepted, was to establish a pole-and-troll zone with help from the ‘Ding’ Darling National Wildlife Refuge back behind Wulfert Flats,” he continued.

The no-motor zone will be comprised of 474 acres reserved for seagrass restoration and protection and will begin to be enforced before the Pass is opened.

“Any motorized vessel will have to pull their prop completely out of the water and then move around either by paddle, by pole or by electric trolling motor,” he said, adding that, as soon as the pass is open, there will be an increase in motorized vessels going through the pass and this effort will hopefully prevent any future scarring.

The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge have been granted federal authority to enforce the new pole and troll zone, but Neal explained that, “The actual officers that will be able to enforce it is really any law enforcement officer – county, state or federal. The Lee County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol will be the lead on enforcing that.”

Neal also discussed soil classification and how they determined where to put the material once it was removed from the area.

“During our sampling, we identified seven different areas of sediment,” Neal said.

A total of 127,000 cubic yards of material will be removed during the course of the project, and there are three more general categories that the removed sediment falls into: nearshore compatible (32,359 cubic yards), beach compatible (80,039 cubic yards) and incompatible (10,275 cubic yards), the last type being a clay-like material that was de-watered in an onsite containment cell and then trucked upland to be used as fill by Sanibel.

The trucking portion of the project to remove the unsuitable material from the site concluded on May 5 and, shortly thereafter, three of the containment cell walls were removed, leaving only one wall running parallel to the water between the bridge and the gulf. Removing the remaining wall will be the last piece of the project, as it will serve as a kind of barrier from the gulf as dredging continues on both sides of the wall.

Project completion is set tentatively for mid-June. A celebration date to commemorate the opening of the pass has yet to be confirmed.

If you have questions about the Blind Pass project, you can contact the CEPD by calling 472-2472 or by e-mailing Robert Neal at rneal@leegov.com.