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Ceitus Barrier is essential to health of our marine environment

January 18, 2011
By PHIL BUCHANAN, Guest Commentary
The Breeze Newspapers editorial on the Ceitus Barrier was well done for such a complex subject; however, your conclusion that the barrier is unnecessary is based on erroneous information.

First, you state that the “primary issue” is “multiple breaches in the [spreader] system.” No, the primary issue is improper distribution of poor quality excess fresh water. The so-called “breaches” are unimportant.

Second, you conduct your analysis as though water quality was the sole goal of the process. No, while water quality is always an issue with municipal runoff, the bigger issue and most pressing goal is to alleviate improper distribution of poor quality excess fresh water— which is ruining our fishery and threatening our tourist based economy and quality of life.

Thirdly, you assume the proposals offered by the Cape Government have substance and would somehow help achieve our goals. More tests and more studies and plans to delay real actions for decades are not meaningful and would do nothing to alleviate improper distribution of poor quality excess fresh water.

For thousands of years, fresh water in sheet flow and creeks from the 105 square mile watershed that stretches from the spreader up through Charlotte County flowed southwest to wetlands that now constitute Northwest Cape Coral and its wetlands fringe. From there it flowed west through dozens of flow ways, vast mangrove forests, and other wetlands to Matlacha Pass. The wetlands filtered and cleansed the water, but more importantly they distributed the fresh water throughout the estuary, creating the varying levels of salinity and diverse habitats so essential to marine life. That’s how Matlacha Pass (now in serious decline) became the heart of perhaps the finest fish nursery in the Gulf of Mexico.

That’s also why the Federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was invoked in 1976 to prevent the developer of Cape Coral from bypassing the wetlands and opening the newly created North Cape canals (and the flow of poor quality excess water) directly to Matlacha Pass. Too much fresh water in one place is just as lethal to saltwater life as any pollutant. The Ceitus Barrier was and still is the critical component that keeps the waters flowing through the wetlands. Without the Ceitus Barrier, the bulk of the poor quality excess fresh water is directed to just one canal north of Pine Island Road. With the Ceitus Barrier in place, the increased level of water is forced through the wetlands to the west of the seven mile spreader and nourishes the estuary in Mother Nature’s historical manner.

The so-called “breaches” are not a problem and do not deserve the disdain you accorded them. They are simply Mother Nature trying to reclaim her historic flow ways through the wetlands. Your editorial also referred to a west bank along the spreader-there is not now and never has been a western bank or wall along the spreader, only wetlands of various types and even some salt flats and uplands.

I agree that replacement of the Ceitus Barrier will not solve the Cape water quality problems, but it will stop the extreme and deadly human-created flow of excess fresh water into one small area in Matlacha, and it will help redistribute that fresh water throughout the estuary where it is so critically needed. I invite the editorial board and all readers to visit Shoreview Drive in Matlacha and see for yourselves the extreme siltation and dead marine life that immediately resulted from removal of the Ceitus Barrier. I also invite you to read the scientific papers submitted by the federal government and environmental organizations when they voted 14 to 4 to replace the Ceitus Barrier-see 3 November Final Report, Annex J, at .

Yes, of course, extreme high tide flows will continue in both directions over and through the wetlands, and yes, more flow ways (don’t call them “breaches”) will open up and some will get larger. That’s Mother Nature— accept it, it’s a good thing. Fifty year sea level rise already exceeds five inches in this area and appears to be accelerating, so the North Spreader Area is going to stay brackish even with the Ceitus Barrier reconstructed at the improved more northerly location, and the creeks and flow ways through the wetlands will continue to provide kayaking and fishing opportunities. But, don’t expect power boat navigable waterways to open through the wetlands-the wetlands and adjoining Matlacha Pass mud flats are extremely shallow and will surely stay that way. A lift or lock at the south end of the spreader is important for boater convenience and safety.

The Ceitus Committee did indeed study in depth a wide range of environmental initiatives that could have greatly improved water quality in the Cape—but as to excess fresh water flows, no alternative to restoration of the barrier was identified. Major water quality improvement proposals included, among others, reservoirs and filter marshes for storm water treatment, restoration and protection of mangroves (living shorelines), and a timely and reasonable schedule for eliminating septic systems in environmentally sensitive areas. The Cape would not even discuss the former items and countered with a 5 to 40 year schedule for the latter item. Of the 18 voting Ceitus stakeholders, only one (the Northwest Cape Neighborhood Association) gave unqualified approval to the Cape’s meager offerings — the other 16 stakeholders recognized the serious need for both a return to historic flows and water quality measures. Most importantly, 14 of the 18 stakeholder groups recognized that there is not only no alternative to restoration of the barrier, but also that the Cape was not going to agree to meaningful water quality measures—and they cast their votes accordingly. Both Lee and Charlotte County governments and every participating non-profit environmental organization as well as the federal government voted to restore the Ceitus Barrier.

Removal of the Ceitus Barrier has interrupted Mother Nature’s thousands year old system for the critical task of distribution of fresh water in our estuary, and nothing short of putting the barrier back will restore it.

I ask the Breeze editorial board to revisit their opinion in light of these considerations.

— Phil Buchanan is a retired attorney, environmentalist, and spokesperson for the Greater Pine Island Civic Association


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