Lee County flood control cost pegged at $1 billion

Bill Smith
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

An effort to control flooding in Lee County could cost as much as a billion dollars by the time it is implemented across several years of design and construction.

There are 38 major water control projects under consideration by Lee County’s staff and engineering firms that have been studying flooding issues.

The estimate is that the cost would run in the $700 million range, but County Manager Roger Desjalais said that the cost could increase significantly.

“A couple of years ago, we were having a conversation, we talked about how this is a billion-dollar project,” Desjarlais said.

Commissioners agreed during a non-voting workshop session this week to have the county administration draw up a priority list of projects similar to the way the county determines what major road projects will be tackled and when.

Lee County hired engineers and rededicated staff after historic flooding in late summer 2017. Hurricane Irma and a powerful storm system labeled Invest 92L by the National Hurricane Center dumped between 15 inches and 31 inches of rain on parts of the county.

Irma came along at the wrong time, with the county already soaked, natural growth torn asunder and property destroyed. The two storms, each with the ability to wreak havoc, caused damage estimated at more than $832 million.

The storms of 2017 exposed Lee County’s vulnerability to future historic storms and now county leaders are charged with identifying failures and designing improvements.

Deputy County Manager Dave Harner told commissioners Wednesday that the county has identified steps to reduce severe storms’ effects.

“The goal is to limit the level of flooding and duration of flooding so people will see it dissipate rather quickly,” Harner told commissioners. “To get rid of standing water in the roadways probably is not going to happen, the goal is to limit that.”

County consultants and staff members have crafted a list of 38 “conceptual”projects that are seen as a big step toward accomplishing the goal articulated by Harner.  

The issue, according to the county environmental director Roland Ottolini, is making sure the components of flood mitigation programs work together through development, land-use changes and other factors that influence where the water goes and how long it stays.

Using computer models, the county can come up with indicators about how water will behave in areas from hills to gullies as it wends through manmade channels and down natural conveyances such as streams and rivers.

“It is a very complex hydrological model. It broke the county into a 750 foot-by-750 foot grid,” Ottolini said. “We put (data) into the model that says, ‘This is what the result will be like.’ You can put in conceptual projects and see if the water levels are (reduced).”

Some homes in the county have been spared flooding felt by their neighbors. Since 1992, homes must be built on pads taller than the anticipated height of significant storms.

The first two phases of the plan examined problem areas and performed preventative maintenance such as dredging parts of Ten Mile Canal, maintaining waterways in the East Mulloch Water Control District, and clearing blocks in other streams. 

The bill for the first two phases of flood control is more than $24 million. The third stage, construction, will pile hundreds of millions onto the cost.

Four regional watersheds have been identified for work: east Lee County, southeast Lee County, south Fort Myers and the area near Whiskey Creek along the Caloosahatchee. 

East Lee

The plan for east Lee County is intended to improve natural flowways, in particular the Orange River, Bedman Creek and Hickey Creek, and to take advantage of nature in other areas, such as near the Greenbriar Swamp, where a large parcel was acquired earlier this year through the county’s Conservation 20/20 program.

The swamp will be used to store floodwater to be released into the system of canals and natural streams.

“We will be connecting those canals nearby by putting water into this system and then slowly releasing it into Greenbriar Swamp,” Ottolini said. “This provides multiple benefits including water quality but also flood attenuation.”

Other east Lee projects would attack issues in Buckingham and other areas. The Lehigh Acres Municipal Services District is building a drainageway, water storage area and water dispersal system to move potential water from Dog Canal to the Hendry Canal.  

Whiskey Creek

Three projects are in the package for Whiskey Creek, including work on some canals dug by the Iona Drainage District in the mid-20th century. The Iona district was abolished in the early 1950s; the county has owned it since 1971.

“Along the Caloosahatchee, three canals drain through the (Iona) drain network,” Ottolini said.

The work would reduce flooding at Florida SouthWestern State College. County studies predict that proposed projects could reduce canal water levels by nearly 3 feet during a three-day rainfall that reaches the level of a projected 100-year high.

South Lee County

The southern part of the county is described by Ottolini as having a “very large drainage area, from State Road 82 east to Bonita Springs.”

Rain that falls throughout the area makes its way into the Hendry, Estero and Imperial rivers. Water drains to the bay through Hendry Creek to the west, Six Mile Cypress and Ten Mile Canal to the north and Mullock Creek to the south.  

The region sustained significant flooding after Hurricane Irma, especially in Bonita Springs and along Island Park off U.S. 41.

Storing water and improving the way water is conveyed to the bay are seen as major elements in south Lee. The Larry Kiker Preserve, owned by the county, and the bordering CREW Land and Water Trust property are important.

“If you combine (Kiker preserve) with the CREW lands, there is an opportunity to provide additional storage in the region,” Ottolini said. “If you could build a berm around the Kiker Preserve to the Kiel Canal as it becomes CREW lands, you can provide temporary storage and release that water to the Kiel Canal and to creeks west of I-75.”

The Imperial River overflowed its banks in 2017, leaving deep and costly flooding issues in areas of Bonita Springs, in Island Park and parts of San Carlos.

Sixteen projects are included in the south Lee County flood control work area. There are also plans to step up maintenance in some areas by dredging selected canals and streams and fixing a breached berm on the west bank of Ten Mile and part of the Iona canal system.

Issues ahead

“Our recommendation is to establish a criteria and prioritization similar to that used for roads,” Desjarlais said. “Once that happens we can get in and define the project, then generate a capital improvement program for your approval.”

Some projects are already ongoing.

“We still have projects that are underway. We have plenty of work to do to continue improving the existing system,” Desjarlais said. “To go beyond the current (projects) it requires more of a planning effort.”

That effort could be fraught with political overtones. As with road construction, decisions that reduce flooding can make parcels worth more money.

Commission Chairman Brian Hamman said, however, that each element of the plan will likely have an impact.

“We could prioritize the 38 projects, prioritize, then fund and build (each project) and make an incremental difference with each one,” Hamman said.

County Attorney Richard Wesch was asked by Commissioner Frank Mann whether setting flood control standards for new construction could put the county on the hook if flooding damage occurs to buildings designed under those standards. 

“It is not a guarantee against all flooding under all circumstances,” Wesch said. “It would not be in a court of law, it would be in the court of the good Lord and what he sends us.”

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