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Canal dredging interest gets revitalized

August 30, 2017
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Dave Parilla has been trying for years to fix a problem for Fort Myers Beach: the slow and steady shallowing of the island's canals.

The canals on Estero Island, constructed in the 50s and 60s, have never been dredged, and with no maintenance program in place, they're naturally filling themselves in and could be getting help from stormwater runoff and illegal dumping.

"FMB Waterways, a group of canal-side residents, formed years ago to try and get support from the town.

Article Photos

After the deluge of rain from Hurricane Harvey through the weekend, this storm drain is working hard to siphon off stormwater into the canal between Ohio and Virginia Avenues.

"We're not looking for money," said Dave Parilla, an island resident and Realtor. "We need support."

The group sat down with a previous administration in 2015. Parilla said the homeowners in his group don't expect the town to pay for the dredging, but hope a taxing district would help share the cost burden amongst the residents.

They were told there was no room in the budget for their project, he said.

But government interest in dredging the canals could be gaining some momentum.

Vice Mayor Tracey Gore brought up the canal group at the Aug. 14 meeting, asking staff to work with the Waterways group to reconnect and find out more information.

But the town hasn't always been out of the loop about the canals.

"It's unfortunate that it got dropped," Gore said. "I hope they still want to have a discussion."

She hopes the town can start working with the interested canal-front homeowners again: Gore said she's had residents call her to ask her about the canals' water quality and depth before.

Gore said she's optimistic that the group could get further with this council than in previous attempts; the current makeup of the council is environmentally conscious, and dredging the canals can be a water quality issue as well as a quality of life issue.

"Who knows what you might find in there," she said.

The town tried to get a program in place more than 10 years ago, but it died.

In 2003, Hans Wilson & Associates was commissioned by the town to develop a report on the canals.

Wilson, the owner and professional engineer, also formulated a matrix to help determine what canals would be prioritized for dredging based on need and community interest.

"The matrix took out the politics," he said. "If there was no commitment from the community, there was no project."

Also in 2003, the Marine Resources Task Force conducted a survey of canal-front residents, with 126 respondents, to get an idea of interest in dredging and willingness to pay a tax or some fee to have a maintenance program. According to the survey results, there was a "strong interest in maintenance dredging with concerns such as funding for the project and waterway ownership."

The survey collected shows 85 percent approved of dredging the canals; 42 percent wanted a 4-foot depth at normal tide, and an even mix of approved funding methods, including property owner assessment, government funding and a combination of both.

Both the Hans Wilson report and the MRTF survey are available to the public to view on

Hurricane Charlie hit in 2004 and interest in the project faded, according to the website.

MRTF brought up the canals again at the Dec. 8, 2014 council meeting to get approval to find out how much it would cost to update the Hans Wilson study. The council at the time agreed to the fact-finding mission but was not willing to spend money if it would cost more to update the study; Bill Veach, the MRTF chair, said ultimately the mission even to update the study on the state of the canals was dropped for financial reasons.

Fourteen years later, the canals have still been untouched.

Only the Yachtsman Cove Canal, between Madera Road and Glenview Avenue, has been dredged. Wilson was involved in this project: the end of the canal was filled with sediment after a major storm and an emergency dredge was needed. The community piled resources together to dredge the rest of the canal at the same time. The emergency dredge alone, which was just the far end of the canal, cost approximately $49,000.

Parilla said during low tide it's getting more and more difficult to navigate through the town's waterways, with some canals seeing 3 to 4 feet of sediments impeding traffic.

"Now you have to work with the tides to go boating or come back," he said. "This should have been done a long time ago."

Wilson said the report his company developed is still applicable to use today, the data would only need to be updated. But it's up to the current will of the council.

When Wilson was contracted in 2003, the council at the time viewed the waterways as part of the infrastructure. But that attitude could have changed, he said, and with other needed infrastructure projects underway it would have to prioritize, he said.

In 2003, the town was planning to help communities by paying for the preliminary work and then set up a Municiple Service Benefit Unit (MSBU) to collect an assessment from the canal community to pay for the actual dredging. If the town doesn't want to help pay for the preliminary work, that means more payment from the residents.

Wilson gave some ballpark estimates of costs: the preliminary assessment is the scope of work, which includes engineering consulting, surveying, plans and speculations drawings, and permitting from local, state and federal agencies. That alone could cost between $20,000 and $30,000, he said. The actual dredging work can cost $25 to $30 per cubic yard to remove, and you can't know how much will be dredged until after the survey, he said.

"The challenge is usually financial resources," he said.

Punta Gorda and Cape Coral both have a maintenance program set up to pay for routine canal maintenance; Wilson said those are the only two communities he knows of in which the city pays for the work.

It's not just boating concerns that keeps FMB Waterways doggedly pursing the issue. It's a water quality concern, too. Parilla said he often sees an film on the water, and with the stormwater being dumped into the canal next to his home, he often sees discolored water floating by his dock.

Water quality in the canals is on the council's radar: in January and February, MRTF began looking at water testing in the canals and a thorough review of the fertilizer ordinance at the direction of council. With stormwater runoff flowing into the canal and the tidal flow of water subdued, canals can create the perfect cocktail for pollution problems. Shannon Mapes, a MRTF member, said in a previous Observer story that she has kayaked into the canals to find decaying vegetation, a lack of circulation and a bad smell, all indicators of poor health. MRTF made tweaks to the fertilizer ordinance to attempt to reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous from chemical applicants running off into the waterways. Its members also supported giving environmental technician Rae Burns funds to perform water testing in the canals. The ordinance has not yet gone to council for a vote.

Wilson said the best thing the town can do to help water quality in canals is to tighten the fertilizer ordinance and be mindful of stormwater runoff dumping nutrients into the water. Dredging canals won't be a cure for water quality, as the main goal of dredging is for navigational access, he said.

"But some canals have been there for decades, before environmental standards, those can get cleaned up," he said.

Gore said she's known about the canal group for a while, and started researching the issue more recently to get more information. She's hoping the town can help look for grants and other options, and potentially have Parilla and his group give a presentation to the council.

"Bruce (Butcher), Dennis (Boback) and I all live on the canals," she said. "This council is very environmentally conscious and it's an important issue to look at. The Waterways group did a lot of work."

Town Manager Roger Hernstadt was less enthused that the town could get involved in canal cleanup right now.

"Grants are hard to get unless a hurricane hits your canal," he said.

When working for the County of Miami-Dade, he was involved in successfully getting a grant to dredge the Miami River, but that was out of FEMA funding and because it was a major navigation channel, he said.

"It's not just calling a company to come and dig it out," he said, adding that there were costs associated with all the work that occurs before any sediment is removed.

"That would be a huge policy discussion for the council to take on. I think there's a timing issue," Hernstadt said. "With stormwater assessment, the water assessment, I'm not sure we should be doing something as a government, but that doesn't stop the homeowners from forming a special taxing district. We could help with that."

And that's exactly the aide Parilla and the Waterways group has been waiting for: administrative assistance, not financial assistance. Parilla said he knows when Hans Wilson's report was proffered, the town had agreed to pay out some of the cost. But now, he and his neighbors just want to be able to boat out with or without the tides.

"We aren't looking to get any money from the town at all, we just want a taxing district," Parilla said. "There are benefits to people on the canals, but it affects the whole island. Real estate prices can increase if you can bring in a yacht."



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