NORTH NAPLES — As the TV cameras rolled and onlookers applauded, Collier Commission Chairwoman Georgia Hiller held up a stack of paperwork and smiled.
This wasn’t just any paperwork, though. This was the long-awaited federal environmental permit issued Thursday to reopen Clam Pass in North Naples about two months after sand filled it in.
“I hate to break it to the public, but real fast for government is 60 days,” Hiller said at a celebratory press conference under a gazebo at the Clam Pass Park parking lot.
The permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been the main obstacle to starting work to dig out the pass. Work could get started as soon as Monday afternoon, project managers said.
When sand pinched off the pass in late December, it raised worries that a lack of water flow into back bays could harm the sensitive ecosystem and reverse largely successful efforts to restore a dying mangrove forest.
Boaters also lost the only access to the Gulf of Mexico from a county canoe and kayak launch on Clam Bay and from the canalfront lots of the Seagate neighborhood.
Saving Clam Pass became a community cause as an impromptu shovel brigade of volunteer residents, tourists and children worked for weeks to dig a deep narrow trench across the huge shoal.
“We didn’t know we’d ever get to this point,” said Scott Streckenbein, a Pelican Bay resident who was among the leaders of the big dig.
Hand shovels will be replaced by a track hoe to dig out the sand and put it on eroded beaches at Pelican Bay and at the county’s Clam Pass Park. Equipment started arriving Thursday at Clam Pass.
The county hired Kyle Construction, of Naples, to do the job for about $200,000. The company plans to work around-the-clock to get the job done as quickly as possible, maybe in two weeks, project managers said.
They said Clam Pass Park will stay open during the job, but parts of the beach might be periodically roped off.
After the work is done, the pass should be 4 feet deep at low tide, or about 6 feet deep at high tide. The cut across the mouth of the pass will be almost 60 feet wide at the top and 45 feet wide on the bottom.
I hate to break it to the public, but real fast for government is 60 days."
Commissioner Georgia Hiller
Before the pass closed in, the county had been working for two years to get a new 10-year permit to dredge the pass periodically. The county shifted gears after the closure, working instead to get a one-time emergency permit.
Work won’t start until the state Department of Environmental Protection modifies its existing dredging permit for Clam Pass to match the project approved by federal permitters.
Dredging permits for Clam Pass have been wrapped up in controversy over how much sand to take out of the pass and have been tied up in a longstanding neighborhood feud over boating navigation in Clam Bay.
The emergency permit was no exception, but environmental groups have come on board with the job approved in Thursday’s permit.
“I’m very happy it’s a smaller project,” said Marcia Cravens, conservation chair of the Calusa Group of the Sierra Club.
Critics of an earlier proposal said the dredging would be too close to mangrove roots and emerging sea grass beds in Clam Bay.
The emergency dredging could keep the pass open for as long as two years, during which time stakeholders will try to hash out the details of a new longer-term permit for dredging Clam Pass.
“Right now we have to get the pass open, and this achieves that,” Conservancy of Southwest Florida scientist Kathy Worley said.
An emergency permit to reopen Clam Pass has been issued and equipment is being staged to start work on the eagerly awaited project, project managers say.
The permitting breakthrough, coming after two years of back and forth with regulators over a longer term dredging permit, prompted Commission Chairwoman Georgia Hiller to call a press conference at Clam Pass Park today at 4:30 p.m.
Sand has been blocking water flows in and out of the pass to Clam Bay since late last year, raising worries about the health of the estuary and its sensitive mangrove forest.
Work cannot begin until after a pre-construction conference with the state Department of Environmental Protection. It is unclear when that will occur.