Feds reveal roadblocks to new waterway for Charlotte Harbor

By  Betsy Calvert, Charlotte Daily Sun Staff Writer, July 20, 2021

Some Charlotte County commissioners are ready to scale the heights of federal permitting to dredge a new passage from the Manchester Waterway to Charlotte Harbor.

“This is dysfunctional federal government,” said Commissioner Chris Constance, after listening to a summary of what 12 federal regulators told county staff in June. He accused the regulators of setting up barriers to ensure their salaries.

“These people have property rights,” he said of Manchester Waterway residents. “This is another example of critters over people. It should be a mole hill. It’s going to be a mountain.”

The county must decide whether to proceed as the lead applicant in a multi-million dollar project that would benefit mostly those residents on or near the western waterway. It would also dramatically raise the value of about 700 empty lots, and increase the development potential and environmental pressure.

At the Tuesday workshop, commissioners concluded they need more cost estimates for the application process. They decided a final decision will come later.

County engineer Matt Logan summarized what he called a summit meeting in June with state and federal regulators. It was an unprecedented assemblage, suggesting the significance of the project. Indeed, regulators said this project will be seen as setting precedent for similar projects in other counties and cities in Florida. Thus, they plan to take an extra hard look at the proposal, even if it takes years, Matt Logan told commissioners.

Federal agencies reminded the county that if anyone objects to a future dredging permit, federal agencies won’t proceed until the county adequately addresses all complaints.

Agencies who would decide the project weighing include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Present at the summit were members of the Manchester Waterway Civic Association.

The Civic Association has for years been advocating for a new cut through undeveloped barrier islands, to Tippecanoe Bay and the Myakka River. Such a cut would provide Manchester property owners a quicker boat route to the open waters of Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico. It would cut their trip from more than one hour in some cases, to about 20 minutes, several said.

These advantages, however, will not help gain approval, federal regulators told county staff in June. So Manchester residents have been working on environmental arguments in favor of the project, saying at first that the flushing of the water would help clean the Manchester Waterway. Most recently, they have been monitoring the water quality in the waterway, where many, but not all properties are on public sewers. The goal is to show how clean the waterway is. The county is now starting a project to remove septic systems to the east of the Manchester.

By the time the project could be approved, years from now, the county may have expanded sewers to reach everyone in this area, Constance said.

“We’re going to have some of the cleanest water coming out,” said Constance.

A scientist with the state Fish and Wildlife Commission said earlier, however, that canals do not provide ideal habitat for aquatic animals including fish and manatees, because they are dredged and have little sea grass. Also, the cement walls and adjacent lawns may not provide adequate filtration compared to mangroves or a natural landscape. Commissioner Bill Truex brought up the filtration concern Tuesday.

At the June meeting, federal regulators also told the county that breaching the barrier island reduces storm protection for the residential area.

Of the environmental benefit claims, they are unsubstantiated, the EPA told county staff. And NOAA is worried the project will hurt sea grass and baby smalltooth sawfish. They don’t currently know how to evaluate potential harm to that ancient fish, however, so they would have to figure out how to do that first.

Commissioners Ken Doherty and Bill Truex said the county must pursue studies to determine whether environmental benefits are real.

“There are definitely environmental concerns that we will need to address, and it’s going to take time and money,” said Doherty.

“There has to be data,” said Commissioner Bill Truex. “If we don’t do that, we’re going to have all kinds of people filing against us.”

 Image Credits: Manchester Waterway Civic Association