October 16, 2017
Lee Flood Victims Want Answers for Ten Mile Canal Fail
By Patricia Borns and Casey Logan
The floodwaters of a back-to-back tropical depression and a Category 2 hurricane may have receded, but the anger of some residents and business owners in south Lee County over the fail of Ten Mile Canal is on the rise.
With no satisfying answers from Lee County, they say -- other than ‘we’re looking at it’ -- residents and business owners are organizing, doing their own detective work and courting legal counsel.
At least two groups, Island Park Property Owners Initiative and Island Park Citizens, a political action committee, have formed; each with ideas and all seeking political leverage to fix a flooding problem likely caused not by one but many sources.
Among the Ten Mile flood suspects:
· The amount of development adding volumes of water to the canal.
· A weir at the end of Old 41.
· A newish development by KB Homes on Island Park Road.
· Dikes that used to protect Island Park Road that seems to have disappeared.
Lee County insists Ten Mile Canal, which drains an area from Fort Myers south into Estero Bay, performed as it was supposed to -- it’s just that the rains of late August and Hurricane Irma two weeks later dumped more water than two 100-year events combined.
“The amount of rainfall has everything to do with the amount of flooding. Lee County Natural Resources Director Roland Ottolini said. “Statistically, the recurrence level of that happening again is well greater than once in 100 years."
But independent experts say the county is overlooking real problems with Ten Mile Canal: a ditch built in the 1920s to drain south Lee lands for gladiolus farming, that now collects runoff from over 600,000 households, businesses and industries for 68 square miles.
“I think the cumulative effect of the development has exceeded the ability of the infrastructure to handle it,” said Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, whose non-profit protects Southwest Florida waters.
Flood victims agree.
Tidewater Island resident Ted Ehrlich in the Island Park Property Owners Initiative likens the Ten Mile situation to "trying to pump 10 gallons of water into a one-gallon funnel."
And on Old 41, “I had never gotten a drop in my building in almost 30 years,” said Anita King of Cambird Auto Body, whose office filled with enough water to take out the computers.
The Kings along with neighboring businesses may hire counsel or join the HOAs to focus the county on their problem.
“How do we fix this? It needs to be done now," King's frustration echoes throughout South Lee. "We can’t afford to clean up from another flood."
A game of smoke and mirrors
Lee Commissioner Larry Kiker sympathizes with her and other flood victims.
“They have every right to be concerned, and so should we all,” said Kiker, who helicoptered with the Emergency Operations Center over the post-Irma floods. The aerial view blew him away. “It was just a lake of water with no boundaries,” he said, worsening as he flew downstream.
Kiker blamed the conditions that precipitated the epic floods on developments of the past 20 years; projects he says would not be approved today.
“It was perhaps 10 years ago,” he said, “that developers were forced to raise their sites to accommodate a 25-year storm event. Now folks are made to build to a 100-year event. We’ve learned more and more as we’ve gone.”
(Actually, South Florida Water Management District continues to permit stormwater plans for a 25-year, three-day event, according to county spokesman Tim Engstrom. It’s the house elevation that must be built to the 100-year level; a requirement that’s been in place for 40 years.)
To meet the stormwater standard, a development must control the rate of runoff from its property to be no greater than if it wasn’t there.
It’s modeled on computers, creating the illusion that no matter how much you develop, the net stormwater effect will be zero.
In reality, experts say, calculating risk this way is a house of cards, because:
· Rainfall statistics change over time, but the data hasn’t been updated for decades.
· Even if each development releases runoff at the same rate, the cumulative effect of the runoff from all the developments changes the result,” Cassini says.
· If vegetation and silt clog Ten Mile Canal, the best-laid stormwater plans will go awry.
A 2008 county study by Boyle Engineering, costing taxpayers $180,000, had already found the canal wasn’t up to par. Among the study’s recommendations not taken by the county was a bypass canal to off-load some of the drainage.
A county stormwater utility that would have helped with canal improvements was approved in the same timeframe but never funded.
“A lot of federal funding that would benefit Ten Mile Canal is contingent on having the stormwater utility,” Southwest Florida Watershed Council Director Mary Rawl said.
Ehrlich's group has clear ideas about what it wants to see, among them:
· Dredge and deepen 10 Mile from Old 41 to and including Mullock Creek.
· Complete development of 10 Mile never finished from the 1970s.
· Keep controllable weirs to maximum height, or have the heights increased.
· Create more large water retention ponds throughout the 10 Mile Canal water management area.
The case of The Coves
The Coves at Estero Bay met the 25-year, three-day storm event standard, say its builder KB Homes and Al Quattrone, whose firm Quattrone and Associated did the stormwater and site plan.
Nor have any violations been issued for the 2015 development located off Island Park Road.
But neighbors blame it for the flooding of their homes, not once but twice. Hardest hit was Royal Woods on The Coves’ east edge, sitting at a much lower elevation.
Residents who went through hurricanes Charlie and Wilma in 2004 say the woodland (where The Coves is now) used to soak up part of the sheet flow from the canal, and their storm drains did the rest. This time, The Coves acted like a dam, they say, stopping the water and pushing it back on their homes. Now some 200 of them have to be gutted.
“Royal Woods is really sad and really bad,” said Judy Stead, a Realtor who has a daughter in Royal Woods. “I couldn’t give away my daughter’s condo today,” Stead said, describing The Coves’ drainage as "pathetic".
Although many factors could have played into the historic flood, was the development the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back?
"When an application comes in, they plug in the retention formula for that development, but are not always looking at the surrounding situation," said Cassani.
In one similar situation, the Florida Supreme Court ruled, "You must allow stormwater flow across your property, and you may not dam your property to cause water to back up and flood your neighbor/s property," Cape Coral attorney Ralf Brookes noted.
Royal Woods and some other Island Park Road homeowners’ associations are considering a class action with personal injury firm Morgan and Morgan, Stead said.
The case of the Old 41 weir
Anita King stood beside the weir at the end of Old 41 – a dam-like structure whose sluice gates can increase or lessen the amount of water flowing downstream – using herself as a measuring stick to show how high the August floodwaters came
She’s a little over 5 feet tall. The water not only covered the weir, it was a foot higher than she is.
Questions swirl around the weir and its role in the floods, starting with the fact that the county, in the mid-2000s, added 20 square miles of airport lands to the canal’s drainage load.
“The airport lands have been identified as part of the Six Mile /Ten Mile Canal watershed as far back as the Johnson Engineering study in 1979,” county spokesman Engstrom said.
But identifying the lands isn’t the same as digging a canal to drain them, which the county later did.
Right behind the weir sits the floodgate for this giant area, which includes the country club homes of Fiddlesticks as well as the airport.
During a historic rain event, bringing all that water into the basin would have affected the peak stages and timing of everything downstream of the weir, where the worst flooding occurred.
Why wasn’t the Old 41 weir modified to accommodate that load, some residents ask.
King and Ehrlich say opening the upstream gates for the airport and Fiddlesticks saved those areas from flooding, but drowned theirs.
Asked if the Old 41 weir gates were opened for the storm events, the county replied, “Yes.”
Were they opened in a timely fashion, allowing water to exit the system several days before the big deluges occurred?
Records requested by The News-Press weren’t provided before publication time.
The case of the disappearing dykes
“The flood made it clear there was an issue that had nothing to do with the hurricane,” said Lesley Willard, a resident of Timberwood Village, which backs up to the canal from Island Park Road.
This was the first time the homes, built in the 1980s, had flooded, she said. The water easily shot over the canal bank, into the ground floor units and out to the street.
Paul Jacobs, who used to own the land Timberwood stands on, thinks he knows why.
A former Lee planning commissioner whose father developed the Island Park subdivision in the 1950s, Jacobs plugged his property with an 8-foot dike “that a person could not see over,” he said, because the canal flooded prodigiously in his day, too.
Today, Timberwood offers homeowners “a private boat ramp into Ten Mile Canal that leads directly into Estero Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, ideal for the boating enthusiast and for avid fishermen,” a blurb on greaterftmyers.com says.
“If one can drive a boat trailer down to the water there now, about 5 feet of dike is missing," Jacobs said. Similar breeches could exist on the west bank, he believes.
“The county either lowered the west side dike, or allowed the adjoining land owners … to lower the dike to permit easy canal access and viewing,” he said.
A record request to the county for the Timberwood Village dock and boat launch application couldn't be completed by publication time.
“The county has to make this a navigation channel”
Kiker wants county staff to do "anything and everything that has to do with these storm events, whether it’s debris, flooding, you name it," he said. "If it requires extra funding, it does become our job to figure that out."
The solution will cost in the millions, he believes, and will be implemented in short- and long-term stages.
Ultimately, “The county has to make this a navigational canal,” he said, so it can be widened and dredged.
The Island Park Property Owners Initiative agrees not widening, but dredging, the canal downstream of the Old 41 weir would stop the flooding south of Fort Myers.
The path for that to happen requires, among many things, a public facility such as a boat ramp, Kiker said. He believes he may have found a neighborhood that has one.
It would also require approval from the Department of Environmental Protection, and, ultimately, the public.
Waterkeeper Cassini, for one, thinks, “Turning Ten Mile into an unregulated navigation channel sidesteps the responsibility. If you have an unrestricted flow out of Ten Mile, it would defeat the purpose of pollution mitigation.”
That’s because everything that goes into the canal winds up in Estero Bay, the first designated aquatic preserve in the state of Florida.
“If you want to see the environmental groups’ hairs spontaneously combust, suggest that you would like to introduce more fresh water and channelize a portion of the bay," said Ron Edenfield of environmental engineering consulting firm RMEC.