Over the past couple years, a growing number of people (mostly waterfront homeowners) have been advancing the idea of dredging a canal extension that would connect the Port Charlotte canal system with the mouth of the Myakka River via Tippecanoe Bay. Last year’s opening of Buckley’s Pass in Punta Gorda has spurred their hopes of getting this somewhat similar project completed.

But while a navigable connector would certainly improve boating access, not everyone thinks it would be a great idea. Therefore, I am giving my column space this week to those opponents. If the “pro-dredging” side would like to also provide a written argument, we’ll run that as well.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

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Preserve Tippecanoe Bay and beyond

By William “Coty” Keller & Judy Ott

A primary purpose of this report is to publicly air a more complete story about a proposal to dredge through the Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserve and State Park to connect the Manchester Waterway to the Myakka River.

A complete, accurate and objective accounting of the project is needed for 2 reasons: (1) The advocates for this project are promoting it in way that is incomplete and misleading, creating a false picture of project costs and benefits. And (2) there has been no public disclosure of the negative impacts this proposal would, if approved and implemented, have on the human and natural community at large.

This report also serves as a red flag to alert the public that our county government has lost any commitment to restoring and/or sustaining our natural world, for which many of us live here. The county has not established the capability to manage the health of our estuaries — where fresh and saltwater meet. This is a concern because our local economy and lifestyles are dependent on the health of our waterways. This is about more than just Tippecanoe Bay. Our way of life and well-being are at stake.

This report describes the Tippecanoe Bay area and explains its unique ecosystem and how it serves as a nursery ground for juvenile fish, as well as vital habitat for adult fish, seagrasses, and irreplaceable mangroves. Equally important is the role this area plays in supporting the overall health of the greater estuary that is so vital to the region’s economy and our lifestyles.

For historical context we go back to the 1950s, to describe the scene before any development. That way we can imagine the area in its natural state. This is important because the advocates for dredging through this area claim they aim to “restore” it.

The land around Tippecanoe Bay was purchased by the Florida West Coast Land Company and then General Development Corporation, who began massive earth-moving projects that altered vast areas of pinewoods, freshwater wetlands, tidal mangroves, creeks, and marshes. This included gigantic drainage ditches called “waterways,” whose outflows threatened Tippecanoe Bay with nutrient runoff.

It is important to understand the science behind excess nutrients and the stormwater and wastewater systems that create these threats to water quality. In the late 1970s, it was because of these threats to Tippecanoe Bay, and the wider effort to protect the fragile water quality and estuarine life of Charlotte Harbor, the state stepped in and stopped the damage (at least in part).

The part of the dredged “waterway” that drained into Tippecanoe Bay was plugged, by legal requirement to partly restore the damage. Tippecanoe Bay and the surrounding region became part of the Charlotte Harbor State Aquatic Preserve and State Park. By law, these lands and waters — now buffered and isolated from the stormwater and wastewater of the nearby development — are to be preserved in essentially natural conditions for future generations to enjoy.

The proposed dredging project overlooks the lessons of history and science, claiming it aims to “restore” natural channels for boating access. In truth, the project proponents want to “restore” back to that historical stage of the region’s development — and make it even worse — which was so harmful to the native ecosystem.

These project proponents are also claiming that the dredging would be good for the environment, without acknowledging that it will allow free flow of canal water and its nutrient laden stormwater and wastewater — the runoff the state acted to stop on the late 1970s — to reach the protected waters of the aquatic preserve and state park.

More than water quality (as if that’s not enough to reject this proposal) is at stake. Irreplaceable mangroves will be destroyed at a cost of lost storm buffering, fish habitat, water filtering and carbon sequestration. Nursery areas for juvenile red drum, bay anchovies, sand seatrout and the endangered smalltooth sawfish will be disturbed.

Dredging will also destroy habitat for adult smalltooth sawfish and seagrasses. Seagrasses provide primary food sources as well as shelter, spawning and nursery habitat to a great diversity of aquatic organisms. They also reduce turbidity, facilitate sediment stabilization and aid in nutrient cycling. The proposed project would wreak havoc on this pristine ecosystem.

There is conflict between the interests of boat users, who want quicker access to deep water, and the long-term interests of the community at large which is better served by preserving the Tippecanoe Bay area (and, by extension, the economic and lifestyle interests of the greater Charlotte community) as intended by the state’s late 1970s decisions, and the county’s creation of the Charlotte Environmental Park in the mid-1990s.

This conflict is highlighted by political contributions made to advance a special interest’s (boaters) advantage over the public interest in the health of the estuary. We are at the point where commissioners are publicly touting the alleged environmental benefits of the proposed dredging, a project that science tells us will degrade estuary water quality and destroy natural habitat.

In the 1990s, it seemed that the county might be taking a stand on preservation of the natural word. That hope has faded over the two decades as the county has failed to acknowledge the degradation of our estuaries, which are at a tipping point, much less dedicate the resources needed to restore our waters to state standards and then sustain them.

The proposed Manchester Waterway dredging is not in the best interest of our precious Tippecanoe Bay ecosystem, and by extension the estuary at large, our economy and lifestyles. This project would harm the overall community. For the county commission to take on the role of lead agency for the project — as currently being considered — and become the primary advocate for this venture, would be putting special interest ahead of the overall community interests at large.

Instead of spending community resources for the benefit of a few, the county should instead consider investing in a serious commitment to the natural world starting with the effective management of local waters. Our primary aim should be to restore our estuaries, and interior waterways, and then sustain them to meet state water quality standards.

For a more complete understanding of the potential economic, ecological and community impacts of the proposed Manchester Waterway dredging project, please read the complete report. It is available at TinyURL.com/Tippybay.


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