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EDITORIAL: Be careful what you ask for

By Staff | Jan 12, 2011

Just weeks after a majority of the parties involved in the North Spreader Ecosystem Management Agreement process agreed water quality in Matlacha Pass and Charlotte Harbor could be better protected by replacing a barrier removed from the canal than by implementing a system-wide mitigation plan, the project remains at the starting gate.

Although the city, which favored the mitigation plan, came out on the losing end of the process, it applied to the state for permits to replace the barrier and boatlift in the North Spreader, a waterway in northwest Cape Coral.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection kicked it back, asking how reinstallation would address the primary issue: multiple breaches in the system that was constructed specifically to prevent water from Cape Coral canals from flowing directly into state waters.

Answer? It does not.

Which is why the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission last week came out in support of a petition by the Northwest Neighborhood Association, which is opposed to the reinstallation of the barrier. The association is now contesting the position of the very groups that challenged the earlier city/state plan to NOT replace the structure.

Confused? Join the club, it has lots of members.

The North Spreader was built in the ’70s after the state ordered a developer to stop building canals in the north Cape and to create a way to prevent fresh water from those man-made bodies from entering Matlacha Pass. The seven-mile “spreader” was constructed along the shore as part of a filtration system that would collect and then disburse — or “spread” — the water flowing from the areas then under development. As designed, the water would flow through mangroves and other natural areas to help filter it before it entered the pass and, ultimately, Charlotte Harbor estuaries. A barrier, with a boat lift to allow boaters a way out of the canal system, also was constructed at the south end of the spreader.

The system worked — for a while.

“Breaches” began to appear, most noticeably around the barrier with more than a dozen counted in 1993. The city first looked to “plug” those outflows in 1999, failing at the task in 2002.

As the breaches got larger, the erosion process accelerated, eventually sweeping around the barrier on its west side.

The city, in 2007, proposed to relocate the structure a little north. But with 13 major outflows documented in 2008 — including the one bypassing the barrier itself — the city and state agreed that it did not make good sense from an environmental standpoint to build another one.

It was determined the barrier would be removed and a plan to deliver a “net ecosystem benefit” would be drafted in its stead.

“Cape Coral agreed and FDEP agreed the relocation of the barrier and lift was unlikely to address the underlying problems with the spreader,” an FDEP document on the North Spreader states.

Basically, it was determined that a new barrier would cause additional pressure on the system and so additional breaches.

The city and FDEP agreed to amend a consent order requiring the barrier and instead develop a plan that actually would protect and improve water quality and habitats in the pass and so began the ecosystem management agreement process.

The decision was immediately challenged — and not by developers — but by various and sundry environmental groups that were determined that the barrier be replaced.

The state agreed to gather input and various affected parties, including the city, Lee and Charlotte counties, and numerous environmental groups, came together to hammer out a North Spreader Ecosystem Management Agreement that would provide better water quality and improve natural habitat in Matlacha Pass and Charlotte Harbor.

Two years into what was intended as a one-year project, an agreement was drafted, one that called for numerous initiatives on the part of the city: a citywide fertilizer ordinance more restrictive than state recommendations, a revamp to the Cape Coral’s seawall program to allow for natural filtration and habitat, a study that could lead to a septic tank maintenance program, and a tidal canal monitoring program.

The agreement also would have mandated a re-start of the city’s utility expansion program by tying sewer installation to outlined “density” benchmarks — a ratio of developed properties compared to empty lots. Some of these density parameters have already been met.

All this was rejected by a majority of “stakeholders” who insisted on barrier replacement — a plan already deemed by the state as an ineffective method to achieve the goal everyone on both sides of the debate wants: better water quality

So here we sit, back where we started as environmentalists hunker down to hold their respective positions; government entities such as Lee County (which voted for reinstallation) posture; and property owners in the north Cape and Pine Island with values at stake wrangle while the issue goes unresolved.

As unresolved it will remain if anyone thinks resolution rests solely with putting the barrier back in at or near its original location.

Reinstallation will not — can not — address the issue of outflow from the other dozen or so breaches so it can not address the only issue on the table that matters — water quality. Let us quote the findings presented to the Lee County Commission:

• Even if the barrier were to be replaced, tidal water movement would still occur over and through the west bank.

• Replacing the barrier may result in renewed erosion and loss of mangroves and larger and more severe breaches.

This is why we supported, and continue to support, the North Spreader Ecosystem Management Agreement in lieu of replacement.

Meanwhile one more thing for consideration — the original agreement between the city of Cape Coral and the FDEP upon entering the North Spreader Ecosystem Management Agreement process states that if the city is required to rebuild, it will not have any obligation to fund the engineering, design or construction of any other work along the spreader canal.

If water quality improvement is, in fact, their goal, we would advise the anti-agreement/pro-replacement faction to be careful what they ask for.

— Reporter editorial