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Islanders concerned over sudden infill of Blind Pass

By Staff | Jan 19, 2011

A photograph of Blind Pass taken last week, showing where sand has begun to fill in the gap between Sanibel and Captiva. The pass was dredged in the summer of 2009, and began to show signs of closing up late last year.

After 10 years of closure, Blind Pass finally opened at the end of July of 2009 — after months of planning, permitting, dredging and construction, of course.

And while the actual opening of the pass was accidental — towards the end of construction, water eroded its way around a sheet pile wall on the Sanibel side of the pass — around Christmas, it became clear that Blind Pass was starting to close up again.

But some people are wondering if Lee County officials are as concerned with the rapid infill of Blind Pass as islanders are.

“When I think of all the efforts that went into getting the permit to do the project, it reminds me that we can’t just stop the day the dredge moves on, and that’s what I’m afraid the county has done,” said Captiva Erosion Prevention District Senior Administrator Kathy Rooker. “Many residents that call the CEPD say that Lee County promised a five-year maintenance plan and they want to know why it isn’t happening. We realize the CEPD is not the project manager, but we’re a huge stakeholder, and so are all Captivans.”

Rooker said she and other members of the CEPD board have begun chronicling the gradual infilling of the pass and sending photographs, comments, suggestions and questions to Robert Neal, the project manager of the Blind Pass restoration with the Lee County Division of Natural Resources.

A heron stands on the beach next to the bridge at Blind Pass, which separates Sanibel and Captiva.

“We’ve been persistent in sharing information with Lee County and in trying to be a catalyst to get them to take action, but because we’re not privy to Lee County data, it’s hard for us to draw conclusions on how to proceed,” she added.

The CEPD has also asked their engineer, Steve Keehn of Coastal Planning and Engineering, to keep a close eye on the pass, stay in contact with county officials and to develop a plan to better maintain the pass.

“We’re looking for solutions because we’re not seeing anything from Lee County. We want to work with them and offer suggestions, but they’re unresponsive,” Rooker said.

At their board meeting last week, the CEPD drafted a letter expressing the organization’s concerns and requesting the County take responsibility — and action — that they will send to the Board of County Commissioners, the Division of Natural Resources and the County Manager, Karen Hawf.

“Inlet management is not an exact science and they’re very difficult to manage because there are so many different factors. The CEPD understands that,” said Rooker. “I’m disappointed because I thought we were all supposed to work together. We don’t want to point fingers or assign blame, we just want to solve this problem.”

Rooker explained that the CEPD was shocked to receive a bill for the project — $1,039,768.36 — stating that Lee County had officially signed off on the project as complete when maintenance provisions were not met. They’ve paid most of it, but the CEPD is openly refusing to pay the remaining amount — approximately $130,000 — until the county takes accountability.

In addition, Rooker said that the CEPD is frustrated with the fact that they’re not getting accurate, complete status reports or information about the pass — even as it continued to fill in over the past few weeks.

“It’s difficult when you have a financial obligation but you have no authority. That’s the position we’re in right now. We just want to make sure that the project meets the performance standards the people of Captiva were expecting,” Rooker added.

Other islanders, including Sanibel Vice Mayor Mick Denham, have taken notice of the rapidly filling-in pass.

“There’s been some conversation going on about it for a few weeks,” said Denham, who noted that he has spoken with City Manager Judie Zimomra and several people on Captiva regarding the matter. “Personally, I think it’s important for the quality of Sanibel’s waters for Blind Pass to be open.”

Denham added that he is not in a position to comment about what action should be taken to reopen the pass.

Captiva resident, business owner and CEPD board member Dave Jensen said that he encourages concerned island residents to voice their concerns to Lee County Commissioner John Manning.

“As a business owner, I depend on healthy waters,” Jensen said. “Opening Blind Pass was a great concept and we went through a lot of work to get it done. The way we understood it, the county knew that there was a chance that the pass might not stay open — but they said they had a plan to maintain it. None of us know if it’s actually going to close, but we’re worried, and we feel that we’ve reached a point where there is great concern that nothing is being done. If it closes, it will take much more to reopen it entirely than if we start maintaining it. We just want to do what it takes.”

“In March, Robert Neal of the Lee County Department of Natural Resources came to Captiva for one of our town hall meetings about Blind Pass and said that if closure of the pass looked imminent, the county would go in and do something,” Rooker said. “The CEPD has always stressed that adverse trends with the pass need to be identified early and addressed. To see the rapid deterioration of the pass and not seeing immediate attention given to it is something that we want addressed.”

But according to Neal, that isn’t necessarily so.

“There seems to be a lot of misinformation going around,” Neal said. “When we opened the pass, we constructed something unnatural. We’re messing with Mother Nature on many different levels. Some people said it wouldn’t last a week, some said a month, but we’re now at 18 months. People are losing hope, but it’s not closed yet. We could go out and dredge today, but if we don’t understand where the sediment is coming from and how it’s getting there, we’re really no better off.

“We don’t want to jump the gun,” he added. “It’s such a dynamic system, so we have to follow Mother Nature, watch the system and learn from it. We haven’t walked away from the pass. It’s a commitment the county stands behind.

As a proactive measure in October of last year, before the pass exhibited the dramatic infill worrying islanders today, Lee County Division of Natural Resources applied for a permit modification to the Blind Pass project with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to do some additional dredging in an area outside of the scope of the original project which will hopefully facilitate a better flow of water through the pass.

Neal noted that the permit would also authorize maintenance dredging.

If the permit is approved in enough time, the county will be able to utilize dredges that will be on Fort Myers Beach this spring.

However, Rooker thinks it might be too late.

“The longer they delay on taking action,” she said, “the sooner the channel will completely infill, making it that much more difficult to reopen. And because the permit modification wasn’t submitted until the end of October of last year, it’s going to take even longer.

So was the initial Blind Pass restoration a total waste of time — and approximately $2.5 million?

“It was definitely a very worthwhile project, the main benefits being environmental,” said Neal. “When we opened the pass, we saw how the back bay cleared, wildlife returned, and seagrasses started growing and manatees started grazing in Clam Bayou. It was totally worth it. We do have a long-term maintenance plan, and if the pass were to close, it would be a kink in the plan. We’re still here and we’re doing a lot of work to learn what exactly is going on. We recognize that if the pass closes, there will be a need to maintenance dredge it — but then we need to address the question of cost and benefit. Are we willing to put in another million dollars for another 18 months, or do we need to start looking at other, bigger alternatives?

For additional information about Blind Pass project, call the Captiva Erosion Prevention District at 472-2472 or visit www.MyCEPD.com.