In the end, digging through the muck underneath the highway was easier than digging through the mass of overlapping jurisdictions and governmental process. With private donations and personal initiative, water is once again flowing through the culverts under State Road 92.
The problem, said Eileen Ward, was mangroves dying. In three locations along SR 92 between Marco and Goodland, ghostly white stumps stand where a healthy mangrove ecosystem used to thrive.
Ward, owner of landscaping firm Greeensward of Marco, and a columnist for the Marco Eagle, is passionate about mangroves. “This didn’t need to happen,” she said, “these hundreds of acres of mangroves killed.”
Mangroves need tidal flow to survive, she said, and these were not getting the required interchange of fresh and salt water.
“This die-off has been going on for 20 years,” said Ward. “The people who were supposed to do this clearing fell down on the job. Somewhere along the line, they stopped maintaining the culverts. City staff was saying ‘ignore her, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. These are storm drains, not tidal culverts.’”
The area in question is along a state highway. It sits in unincorporated Collier County, but, said Ward, the county contracts with the city of Marco Island to maintain the right of way.
“The city dumped dirt here — that’s what got me going,” said Ward. “I have taken this on as a cause. I’m going to keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing. It’s fixable. We may be beyond the point of having a beautiful mangrove forest, but you can get rid of that smell.” Ward described the odor as a combination of ammonia and sulfur. “It’s the decay of organic material. It smells like a sewer.”
Ward said she sat down with Marco Interim City Manager Jim Riviere. “I said these are not stormwater drains, they are tidal culverts. I have the DOT map from 1967 showing that,” she said. “It was a beautiful thing Jim Riviere did. He said ‘You can do it. You pay for it, you get the permits. Get them cleaned out, ad the city will step in, put proper screens on, and maintain them in perpetuity.’
“I think it will be futile, trying to bring the dead trees back to life, but I congratulate Eileen for trying,” said Riviere. “And yes, that’s an accurate account of our conversation, as long as ‘perpetuity’ doesn’t extend past my lifetime.”
Ward solicited donations to pay for opening the culverts, and clearing away the dirt and exotic vegetation blocking them. “John and Corrie Grado gave $2,500, and Key Marco put in $2,000,” she said, “but we need another $2,000 to finish the work.”
Once they had permits in hand, Ward coordinated contractors to remove a massive Brazilian pepper tree that was blocking one of the culverts, and succeeded in unplugging another one, she said.
“The main culvert, between Stevens Landing and Goodland, is open and flowing,” said Ward. “We excavated at Key Marco, and found the culvert does go through.”
Nancy Richie, environmental specialist with the city of Marco Island, said the issue is much bigger than a few blocked culverts. “That die-off has been there since the ‘40s. Maybe we can do something to help with the die-off area,” she said. “The city was not obstructive in the process, but helpful. I helped Eileen get those permits,” but a larger effort will be required to solve the problem, and it is underway, Richie said.
“There are experts working on it. I’ve talked to South Florida Water Management, Rookery Bay, and the DEP. We’re getting a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Richie continued. “You need to talk to the people with their feet out there in the mud. Cleaning a culvert will help, but that is not the whole solution.”