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Boating south of Fort Myers Beach should get a lot easier soon.
After years of permitting tussles, Louisiana-based Coastal Dredging has started sucking sandy underwater soil from Big Carlos Pass, between Estero Island and Lovers Key. Once that’s finished, the floating rig and onshore bulldozer/backhoe team will move south to New Pass, between Big Hickory and Black islands, to begin the process there. In all, 130,000 cubic yards will be dredged up.
By combining the two jobs into one $2.2-million project, taxpayers saved “a significant amount of money” — hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Justin McBride of the West Coast Inland Navigation District, the multicounty special taxing body spearheading the work.
Though no exact traffic count is available, the two passes are among the most-used in Lee County, McBride said.
Each phase is supposed to take about 30 days, but weather can change the schedule.
It’s the first time the Big Carlos passage has been mechanically deepened, and long overdue, said boater and Fish Tale Marina owner Al Durrett.
“It’s been slowly filling itself in (with) really poor passage for the last 10 years,” Durrett said, which can make for hazardous boating. “If you think you’ve got five or six feet of draft but there’s really only two or three, that’s potentially expensive or dangerous,” he said. “You can sink your boat.”
The dredged spoil from New Pass will be pumped to Big Hickory Island and the material from Big Carlos Pass will go on Fort Myers Beach near Leonardo Arms.
That area that includes critical habitat for sea turtles and several bird species, many of which are currently nesting, but McBride said the work shouldn’t affect wildlife. “We have monitoring plans for shorebirds, manatees, and turtles to ensure that there is little to no impact on species during the project.
It shouldn’t mess up seagrass or other underwater plants either, McBride said.
“There were no submerged aquatic vegetation in the dredge footprint. Additionally we conduct daily turbidity monitoring to ensure we are not impacting resources outside the dredge area,” he said.
Area wildlife advocates are helping to monitor and protect nearby species. For example, the nonprofit Turtle Time has already moved 12 loggerhead nests that would have been in harm’s way, and checks the work area daily before crews can get the go-ahead, said Eve Haverfield, the group’s founder.
“We’re out there patrolling at daybreak, and we contact the person on the tractor let them know the area has been cleared,” she said. So far, “It’s worked well. We’ve got a terrific corps of people.”
As for the nesting birds, which include least terns, black skimmers and snowy plovers, all of which are threatened in Florida, Audubon’s Brad Cornell calls the project’s timing unfortunate. He realizes that human demands make dredging almost inevitable, but “We want to minimize the impacts … (Those birds) are all threatened species in the state of Florida, and that’s no small deal,” he said, though the dredged spoil could potentially help them.
“In theory, that could be a benefit for both turtles and birds, as it stabilizes the beach and creates more habitat.”
McBride points out that the dredged sand doesn’t cover up existing beach; instead it goes near where water meets shore, which builds out the waterline.
Barring any violent weather and based on advance modeling the district did, McBride said the new depths should hold for several years.
Finally, he adds: “People need to stay clear of the equipment in the water and on the beach. Give the contractor space so they can do their work safely and timely.”
Pass dredging projects
Sites to be dredged: 2: Big Carlos Pass, between Estero Island and Lovers Key; and New Pass, between Big Hickory and Black Island. Both connect the Gulf of Mexico with Estero Bay
Finished dimensions for Big Carlos Pass: About 8½-feet deep
For New Pass: About 6½-feet deep
Work done by: Louisiana-based Coastal Dredging Co. Inc.
Amount of spoil to be dredged from both areas: About 130,000 cubic yards
Spoil destination: Big Carlos Pass sand goes on Fort Myers Beach near Leonardo Arms; New Pass sand will go on Big Hickory Island.
Budget for both projects: $2.2 million