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Barrier opponents, proponents, both say science is on their side

By Staff | Jun 11, 2011

The results of the North Spreader Ecosystem Management Process have not been good.
Eighteen stakeholders entered into that process with the sole purpose of finding a set of Net Ecosystem Benefit projects — or NEBs — that would be more productive and better for the environment than simply replacing the Ceitus Barrier.
Two years of meetings and pontificating went into that process amongst stakeholders, and now nearly three years after that process began, they are essentially where they started: the barrier is still not back in place, no NEBs are being implemented, and the whole affair remains mired in legal challenges, accusations and infighting.
If there is one thing that both sides can agree on, it’s that they simply want what’s best for the environment and for the water quality of the Matlacha Pass, Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor.
But no one can quite agree on how to get there and the process participants were left disillusioned by the results of the work put into that process.
“I will never trust an EMA process again,” said Rae Ann Wessel, policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, one of the stakeholders. “It was a bait-and-switch.”
Fourteen of the 18 stakeholders voted to replace the barrier when the EMA process eventually concluded, but the Florida Department of Environmental Protection denied Cape Coral’s permit application to replace the combination dam and boatlift in the northwest spreader, a manmade canal designed to keep fresh and saltwater from mixing in Matlacha Pass.
Claiming that the barrier would ultimately harm water quality if replaced, Florida DEP is now faced again with a legal challenge by Lee County.
Lee County maintains that the city of Cape Coral purposely undermined its own application to ensure the barrier would not be replaced. The matter will now move to a courtroom to determine if that’s true.
There’s also another forthcoming challenge being filed by Pine Island resident Phil Buchanan, who said that at least three other non-profit groups — the Pine Island Civic Association, the Watershed Council and the Snook and Game Foundation — plan on joining that challenge.
Buchanan said the legality of the DEP consent order — which governed the EMA process — is now in question and that no science exists to support keeping the barrier out.
While the DEP has maintained that it is well within the boundaries of its own consent order, Buchanan said that consent order required that the barrier be replaced if the stakeholders could not come to terms on a better plan to protect the pass, and that the DEP has violated those terms.
“The majority of the stakeholders agreed the barrier should be replaced,” he added.
“Science” has been the most frequently used word during the fallout of the EMA process.
Whether for barrier replacement or not, both sides lay claim to having the kind of strong, science-backed information that supports their position.
Both sides have accused the other of manipulating data for its own means, as well as disagreeing on whether the right NEBs were developed though the EMA process.
City engineer Oliver Clarke said that when the EMA process began, none of the stakeholders could even look out of the same window and agree whether it was day or night.
As the process moved along during those two years, he said, the various stakeholders began to come together and identify projects that were far better than replacing the barrier.
Time lines on certain NEBs — including density requirements for sewer in Northwest Cape — became sticking points and was part of the reason the stakeholders began to fracture after seeming to proceed in the same direction.
“Late spring of 2009 everyone was on the same page. We almost had a full consensus,” Clarke said.
Water quality data from Clarke shows that water entering into the spreader left in better condition, with less phosphorus and nitrogen, than when it came in from freshwater canals dug throughout the northwest Cape years ago, the reason the spreader canal was developed.
Clarke said replacing the barrier would solve siltation problems at the southern end of the spreader canal, but replacement would create problems further north along the spreader and lead to a series of “breaches” that would simply allow the fresh and salt waters to mix through the mangroves to Matlacha Pass, harming the mangrove beds in the process.
There’s also a question of whether replacing the barrier will just lead to another blow out, he said.
“Even if it doesn’t cause another blow out, it has a trivial impact on water quality,” Clarke said.
The previous barrier was removed with state permission after the waters in the spreader washed out between the bank and the structure along one side, allowing free flow into the pass.
The state and the city then agreed to look at a mitigation plan to better protect water quality. The action was challenged, with resulted in the the North Spreader Ecosystem Management Process.
Wessel doesn’t think a new barrier will blow out if maintained, and that a barrier would solve what she calls a “point discharge” for large amounts of fresh water flowing into Matlacha Pass.
Wessel said other breaches along the spreader and other points in the estuary is nature “healing itself” and they are not breaches at all.
She equated the current fresh water flow into the estuary to a fire hydrant blast, instead of a slow trickle of a hose that’s nearly turned off.
“To have one outfall with such high pressure going through it, it’s not conducive to a healthy estuary,” she said.
When, exactly, the barrier was blown out also is in question.
Some say Hurricane Charley came through and finished what nature started. Others, like Nate Bliss, who lives along the spreader and was one of the stakeholders as a member of the Northwest Neighborhood Association, said the blow out happened much later.
Bliss said he looked at the barrier before and after the hurricane and found discernible difference and that the blow out actually occurred in January 2006.
David Scott, a north Cape resident and also a stakeholder who took part in the process, said the entire system, designed by an early incarnation of the DEP, was in a way destined to fail and that the barrier only sped that process along.
By design, Scott said, the spreader system was to be a storm water collection system, but instead is a tidal system. Scott said there is no storm water entering the system now, and that there is no real influx of fresh water.
The problem, he said, is the sea level rise and the nearly constant tidal flow year round, and the sheer force of those tides cannot be stopped, especially by a barrier that failed in the first place.
Outbound tides are far stronger than inbound tides, he said.
“Three hundred and forty two days of the year, the tide is way in, our system is over-topped,” Scott added.
It could take up to a year for the administrative challenge to make its way through the legal system, according to Buchanan, who said he’s reaching out to other statewide environmental groups to be part of his forthcoming challenge.
If the barrier is replaced, it will be north of where the previous barrier was located.
Buchanan said that sewers and septic tanks are no longer the sticking points of the process. He said the city has already exceeded the density which requires sewers, but in the end, neither the city, nor the DEP, abided by the ground rules set during the EMA process.
Rae Ann Wessel said the stakeholders who voted to replace the barrier have been misrepresented.
“We didn’t spend to year polarized … we were characterized as not wanting to give up anything,” she said.
Meanwhile, Clarke fears the matter has moved beyond environmental concerns and become strictly political.
“This is a scientific matter. This isn’t political,” he said.
Deputy County Attorney Jed Schneck did not immediately return phone calls for comment.