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Cape Coral and 400 miles of canals: Impacts and opportunities

By Staff | Nov 11, 2009

Since March 2008, SCCF has been involved in the issues surrounding the DEP-sanctioned removal of the Ceitus Boat lift by the City of Cape Coral.

The Ceitus Canal, in northwest Cape Coral, is part of the City’s drainage system designed in the 1970s. It provides stormwater drainage for the Northwest Cape and stormwater delivered from northeast Lee and Charlotte Counties through Gator Slough.

The boat lift was constructed as part of an enforcement action to prevent the direct discharge of canal water into Matlacha Pass. Instead, the water passes through the coastal mangrove forest that buffers Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve from Cape Coral, providing natural filtration to remove nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus).

Cape Coral Background

In 1957, Jack Rosen from Baltimore founded the Gulf Guaranty Land and Title Company and began development of a sprawling city along the north shore of the Caloosahatchee. Old cattle ranches and farmland were bought and bulldozed and canals were excavated. The City of Cape Coral was born.

Small lots in this “Waterfront Wonderland” were available through installment payments, and the first family moved into the Redfish Point area (near the yacht club) in June 1958. The opening of the Cape Coral Bridge in March 1964 hastened development and the City of Cape Coral was incorporated in 1970. At 116 square miles, it’s the third largest city in Florida (by land acreage). The 167,000 full-time residents represent a city that is approximately 40 percent developed with an expected build-out population of over 400,000.

Environmental issues relating to the excavation of canals in mangrove wetlands surfaced in the 1970s and, by 1976, a newly formed state agency in charge of water and wetland regulation denied Cape Coral expansion permits. Remnant canals that were begun but not completed can be seen in aerials. By then, the developer, who was also developing Golden Gate Estates in southern Collier County and projects in other states, was in bankruptcy.

The State entered into a Consent Order with the company to attempt to offset some of the environmental impacts. However, it was recognized that, because of the extensive network of interior canals already developed and sold there were limited options to address water quality. As a result the Consent Order stipulated that it “does not signify water quality standards will be met in the interior canals but attempts to buffer, treat and improve water quality before it reaches Matlacha Pass and the Caloosahatchee.” The construction of a boat lift at the southern end of the Ceitus canal, north of Pine Island Road was required.

Cape Coral’s Natural Coastline

The historic Cape Coral shoreline along Matlacha Pass was originally a floodplain composed of three distinct habitats:

At the water’s edge a mangrove fringe, dominated by red, black and white mangroves extending toward land.

Landward of the mangrove was salt marsh, characterized by salt tolerant herbaceous plants such as Spartina and Juncus;

Beyond the marsh and above the mean high waterline was the saltern, or salt flats, characterized by very high salinity caused by tidal inundation during extremely high tides and high evaporation resulting in extremely high soil salinities where few very plants can survive.

The western development of Cape Coral extended into these habitats that served as a natural buffer for high-water events.

Ceitus Blow-Outs & The EMA Process

In recent years, there have been blow-outs in the Ceitus Canal, most notably at the boat lift structure. A major blow-out impacted acres of mangroves and created an opening that bypasses the boat lift, undermining the water quality benefit. In renegotiating the Consent Order with the City, DEP allowed the removal of the boat lift to stop the erosion of mangroves and sand. Concerns about water quality with the lift removed spurred SCCF and 10 other petitioners to challenge the removal.

The resolution of that challenge was an agreement to participate in a year-long study and facilitated negotiation between the petitioners, the City of Cape Coral and DEP to explore alternatives to the replacement of the boat lift that might provide more water quality benefits.

Over the past year, the group has been meeting to determine if the best solution is to replace the boat lift at a more secure point north of the old structure or if a suite of projects could provide more water quality benefits (a net environmental benefit, or NEB) above and beyond that provided by the structure. The Consent Order provided that Cape Coral would be required to either replace the structure or provide a suite of NEB’s established by consensus of the group, but not both.

Alternative Proposals

After 13 months, the process has resulted in six alternative proposals, which Cape Coral has committed to discuss in detail. The projects include:

1 – Adopt a Cape Coral Fertilizer Ordinance.

2 – Amend Cape Coral’s seawall engineering design to provide a planted “living shoreline” buffer along canal frontage to treat water quality and create habitat.

3 – Stormwater treatment improvements. Cape Coral is proposing to upgrade “catch basins” that hold stormwater runoff and hold more water in street side swales.

4 – Expansion of the on-again, off-again public sewer system currently is proposed to be triggered by a percent build out with sewer design initiated at 40 percent and construction to begin when 50 percent occupancy is reached. No quadrants are close to 40 percent at this time.

5 – Maintain the Cape Coral canal dredging profile at a five foot depth. There is no proposal to address the deepest inland canals that extend to 16 feet deep.

6 – Implement boating related enhancements including the elimination of motorized vessels from one boat ramp in the canal system.

A series of other projects have been discussed that include work by the SFWMD (South Florida Water Management District) and Lee County but only the above six would be required of Cape Coral to satisfy the legal consent order.

The next meeting on Monday, Nov. 16 maybe a very interesting one with four new council members elected in Cape Coral and an expectation that the participants will be discussing and voting on which alternative to support.