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Cape culls $3 million for pipeline

By Staff | Jun 27, 2019

A pipeline project that will bring reclaimed water from Fort Myers into Cape Coral, reducing discharges into the Caloosahatchee River while helping the Cape with its reuse efforts, has received a giant boost from the state.

The state appropriations budget signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis includes $3 million for the city’s Caloosahatchee River Crossing Project, which will create a reclaimed water pipeline underneath the river at the Midpoint Bridge from Fort Myers to Cape Coral.

The pipeline initiative is one of a handful in Lee County, which is set to receive about $11.5 million for local projects.

City officials say they are grateful the pipeline project is among them.

“We want to thank Gov. DeSantis for supporting this important project, which will provide benefits to Cape Coral, Fort Myers, and the environment,” said City Manager John Szerlag in a statement. “We have been working on securing alternative sources to meet our city’s irrigation demand. Our partnership with Fort Myers will provide additional water and help reduce the impact on our freshwater canals during the dry season.”

The crossing project is the largest appropriation for Lee County this legislative session.

The project is considered a win-win for both cities. Cape Coral will receive reclaimed water for irrigation use during the dry season, and Fort Myers will reduce discharges to the Caloosahatchee River.

State Rep. Dane Eagle, R-77, said the project was eight years in the making and is of utmost importance both locally and statewide for water quality and quantity.

“Fort Myers is dumping tens of millions of gallons of treated water into the river every day, which doesn’t help the water quality,” Eagle said. “Cape Coral has a quantity shortage and we can use that water for irrigation and firefighters. We also have more people living here and they aren’t making any more water.”

Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello said the nutrients going into the river didn’t help last summer when blue-green algae slimed the river, leaving behind dead fish and manatees, devastating the area’s tourism-based economy.

Coviello said while the difference wasn’t severe, the pipeline will certainly help.

“The water can get over here so we can recondition it and utilize it for irrigation and keep the canal levels good,” Coviello said. “This project is a win-win for both cities and we looked forward to this project for a long time and it’s finally happening.”

The city of Fort Myers got $1.5 million in companion funding for its side of the interlocal agreement.

Eagle said water quality has been a major priority in Tallahassee, as Florida is a peninsula with all kinds of water issues and needs.

A record $687 million was put in the budget for water quality, Eagle said, which he called the most Everglades friendly budget in state history.

“Our sales tax dollars all go to Tallahassee and we try to bring that money home for infrastructure purposes. They help with the water quality issues that we’re focused on trying to fix,” Eagle said. “Our delegation has made water a big issue since before I was there. The challenge has been making it a statewide issue and not a regional one. Last summer highlighted it and the governor made it a top priority.”

Cape Coral has solicited proposals from engineering firms for the design, regulatory permitting and construction of the pipeline and is presently in contract negotiations. The design and permitting is estimated to take between 12 and 18 months to complete.

A grant from the state was awarded for $800,000 to assist with the cost of designing and permitting of the reclaimed water transmission main.

Construction of the pipeline for Cape Coral is expected to cost about $15 million and will be completed in 2023. It will cost around $5 million for Fort Myers.

* Grow Your Own Teacher a win

One of the smallest, but most consequential items in the budget is the Grow Your Own Teacher scholarship pilot program. While only $356,832 was devoted to it, it will serve a vital need for Lee County to help alleviate the severe teacher shortage, officials said.

Four local students will get a four-year scholarship to earn a degree in Education. Once graduated, that person will be required to teach for two years at a Lee County school.

State Rep. Spencer Roach, R-79, said this is a program that has never been tried in the state and the hope is to attract and keep qualified teachers.

“We’re targeting those who have already expressed an interest in becoming educators. If it doesn’t work, we won’t do it again,” Roach said. “It’s a small step forward to try to address the issue. We have teachers fleeing the state and we have to do better to attract that talent.”

Eagle said there is a lot of young talent in Lee County that is shipping out upon graduation from high school or college.

“This is something to incentivize them and will help the Lee County public schools keep the kids who went to school here to come teach here,” Eagle said.

* Sirenia Vista sees the veto pen

Gov. Ron DeSantis made city parks a big loser statewide. Among the items he struck down was a plan to build an environmental center and install utilities for Sirenia Vista Park in northwest Cape Coral.

The $650,000 plan would have put water and sewer in to replace the well and septic, while creating a place for people to go to learn about the environment through programs and workshops.

“The governor’s purpose for vetoing it is that he believes parks should be funded by local tax dollars,” Eagle said. “That’s his prerogative. I disagree because I believe it’s a statewide initiative with a local focus, but that’s his decision.”

Coviello said that although the park plan was vetoed, the governor has done more good for the Cape than bad.

“This budget cycle, we’ll look to see if we can find something to build a pavilion for educational purposes. It would be a nice amenity to the city,” Coviello said. “Maybe we can find something to replace it.”

For environmentalists, the decision was not great news. Pascha Donaldson, vice-president of the Cape Coral Friends of Wildlife, said she wasn’t surprised.

“The decision did not make me happy. It would have been nice if we could make it a point of destination for Floridians. Maybe the governor would have leaned toward giving us the money then,” Donaldson said. “It’s all in the presentation. We wanted it to be like Ding Darling, to take tourism from over the bridge.”

Sirenia Vista Park is owned by the city, but is not part of the $60 million GO Bond city residents voted to approve last November.

The Cape Coral Rotary Club helps manage it.

* Cape Coral Public Safety gun range vetoed

A proposed $500,000 grant for the Cape Coral Police Department’s proposed $8.3 million training facility was another funding project the governor vetoed.

Currently, police travel to Buckingham to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office indoor gun range to get the firearms training they need.

Eagle said a city of nearly 200,000 people needs its own facility, especially in this day and age. The facility the city proposes to build on 15 acres of the old Zemel property in the north Cape would have gone a long way to fund that.

“With the focus today on gun violence and the issues some have with police, we want to be sure we have the best trained force possible,” Eagle said.

“We wanted to make the facility usable for other municipalities and law enforcement agencies to generate revenue as well,” Coviello said. “That’s something we’re going to talk about moving forward.”

Coviello said the $500,000 could be requested again in the 2020 budget, for which talks will begin following the City Council hiatus in July. He also said the project will not be built overnight and the city will look to receive some grants.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the city of Cape Coral’s plans for the planned CCPD indoor gun range facility.

n Among the other items Lee County received funding for:

– Best Buddies Mentoring and Student Assistance Initiatives, $800,000

– Destination Graduation- CareerSource Southwest Florida, $500,000

– DNA Comprehensive Therapy Care Model, $1,000,000

– Fort Myers Beach Stormwater Outfall Improvements, $500,000

– Fort Myers Salvation Army – Co-Occurring Residential Treatment Program, $275,000

– Inclusive Transition and Employment Management (ITEM) Program, $750,000

– LARC Special Needs Shelter Project, $108,675

– Lee County – Lehigh Acres Senior Citizens Center Facility Upgrade, $350,000

– Lee County Caloosahatchee Tributary Canal Rehabilitation: L-3, $400,000

– Lee County Public Safety Communications Infrastructure, $900,000

– Marino Virtual Campus, $500,000

– Renewal of Technology Research & Advisory Services, $55,000

– Sanibel Donax Wastewater Reclamation Facility Process, $500,000

– Babcock Ranch, off SR 31 just past the Lee/Charlotte County line, received an $8 million appropriation for the construction of the Southwest Florida Hurricane Evacuation Center at Babcock Ranch ad part of a $2.9 billion tally for hurricane preparedness and recovery statewide, including

The proposed $15.7 million75,000-square foot-facility “will provide safe shelter for at least 2,500 evacuees in an area safe from storm surge inundation zones, including residents with special needs,” a release from Babcock Ranch states. The community will donate the land and cover infrastructure costs.

Coviello said the governor did an overall great job for Lee County regarding water, education and infrastructure.

“He’s made some bold moves. I like what he’s doing. He’s made some strong decisions. Not only is Cape Coral in pretty good shape, but in the state,” Coviello said.