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Clarifying issues related to Cape Coral’s North Spreader canal

By Staff | Jan 19, 2011

In March 2008, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF) joined 10 other petitioners to challenge a decision by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that allowed the City of Cape Coral to remove a required stormwater barrier in the North Spreader/Ceitus canal in Cape Coral.

The barrier, required by DEP Consent Order, was designed to protect the coastal waters of Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve from Cape Coral’s stormwater runoff and drainage through the westernmost canal. The petitioners agreed to enter into a mediation process called an Ecosystem Management Approach (EMA) in an attempt to resolve the dispute.

The purpose of the EMA process was to develop a suite of projects that would provide an alternative to the replacement of the barrier in the north spreader/Ceitus canal. The collection of projects would need to provide a Net Environmental Benefit (NEB) for the protection and benefit of the Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve ecosystem above and beyond the replacement of the stormwater barrier.

SCCF agreed to participate in this process with great hopes that a meaningful suite of basin wide projects could be developed to address issues including water quality, water quantity, timing of water discharges and habitat restoration.

To our great disappointment after two years of meeting and negotiating in earnest with the diverse stakeholders, we find that the suite of NEB projects the City of Cape Coral is willing to commit to falls short of that critical threshold of providing an NEB.

There has been a lot of misinformation circulating regarding the process and the conclusion that the barrier needs to be replaced. We’d like to clarify a few of these issues.

First a definition of “breaches.” In the 1970s, the construction of the Ceitus canal bisected a number of natural creeks that extended west from the land that became the City of Cape Coral to the coastal waters of Matlacha Pass. These natural estuarine creeks, that have today been incorrectly characterized as breaches, are critical habitat for juvenile fish, crabs and shrimp that are dependent upon the freshwater/saltwater mixing zone that serves as their nursery.

Contrary to what has been suggested, the barrier was never intended to prevent the movement of tidal waters through the western shoreline of the canal. Rather the barrier was specifically designed and functioned to hold back water to sheetflow west over the coastal mangroves and through the tidal creeks. This design enabled the slow movement of water from the canal into the estuary, providing water quality treatment, moderating the timing of water delivery and distributing the flow across the miles of mangroves and tidal creeks. This water becomes particularly critical in the winter months when water levels are lower and freshwater becomes especially critical to provide freshwater inflow.

Without the barrier, an unnaturally large volume of untreated freshwater is diverted out the south end of the canal into Matlacha Pass. Reinstalling the barrier will recreate the healthy mangrove sheetflow, treatment and flow through these vital tidal creeks. Healthy water quality and healthy flows are fundamental to the health of our estuarine food web including game fish, crab and shrimp species and seafood.

Opponents to replacement of the barrier have argued and this paper’s Editorial suggests that replacing the barrier will cause new blowouts and breeches in the canal, similar to what happened before. It is important to remember that the old barrier, built adjacent to mangrove wetlands, operated as designed for 30 years despite a total lack of maintenance, even though there is an escrow fund for that purpose. The new barrier location is proposed to be built adjacent to uplands to address that concern.

Water quality is a central issue in the decision to open up the stormwater system of Cape Coral canals into the State Aquatic Preserve of Matlacha Pass. The fact that the North Cape is only one quarter built out, and limited capacity to intercept and treat water from home sites, yards, septic tanks and stormwater, is built at an intense scale and in proximity to both surface and ground water makes this a critical time to address water quality projects.

The EMA process provided an opportunity to comprehensively address water quality to provide a net environmental benefit. Unfortunately, the city’s refusal to commit to an effective suite of projects fell short of this critical threshold. Failing to address water quality issues today threatens the health of our unique and valuable aquatic resources.

For more detail on how we evaluated the proposal, please visit our website to read our position paper at www.sccf.org.