NORTH NAPLES — When the mangroves in Clam Bay began turning brown below the high-rise condominiums of Pelican Bay some 20 years ago, the neighborhood sounded an alarm that still echoes today.
By 1995, some 50 acres of drowning mangroves prompted a plan paid for by Pelican Bay's developer, Collier County taxpayers and Pelican Bay residents to increase tidal flushing from the Gulf of Mexico by opening up Clam Pass and widening tidal creeks that meander through the forest. It worked.
Now, with the North Naples pass stuffed shut with sand since December, fears are rising that the mangrove rescue could be in jeopardy, and lovers of the estuary are worried that it could harm one of the planet's most biologically productive ecosystems and a favorite spot to fish, watch wildlife, swim and paddle.
"I feel passionately about that area," said Pelican Bay resident Mary Bolen, who is one of a group of birdwatchers that walks along Clam Bay every Tuesday morning. "I just love that place dearly."
Since the 1950s, Clam Bay has been hemmed in by urbanization, with the construction of Vanderbilt Beach Road at its northern end, the construction of Seagate Drive at the southern end and the development of the Seagate, Naples Cay and Pelican Bay neighborhoods.
The permits that allowed Pelican Bay to be built in 1977 also required that Clam Bay be preserved. People have been loving it — and fighting over it — ever since.
Battles have pitted neighborhoods against each other across the city-county line over navigation in Clam Bay. Debates have raged over how much sand to take out of Clam Pass. County commissioners recently made waves by handing control of the management of Clam Bay back to the Pelican Bay Services Division, an arm of county government that advises commissioners about spending the neighborhood's taxing district money.
Pelican Bay's first task: Shaking loose a logjam over environmental review of a federal dredging permit to reopen the pass. Consultants say a permit likely won't be issued for at least six weeks.
In the meantime, an impromptu shovel brigade of locals, tourists and children has been working to dig a long, deep, narrow trench across the beach to get more water to Clam Bay.
"They decided to tackle the impossible," said Pelican Bay resident Diane Lustig, one of the original shovel-wielders. "It shows the community is concerned. It takes my breath away."
Clam Bay actually is three bays that maps label as Outer, Inner and Upper Clam Bay. The entire system covers 570 acres, of which more than 400 acres is a mangrove forest and 115 acres are shallow, open water.
Mangroves and seagrass beds drive the estuary's eco-engine, providing food and nurseries for a diverse array of wildlife. Fish swim among mangrove roots. Oysters and clams nestle on the bay bottom. Wading birds stalk the mud flats.
Clam Pass closed repeatedly in the 1990s, contributing to the mangrove die-off that was triggered when heavy rains drowned mangroves with too much fresh water.
Last month's closure has cut off tidal flows for the first time since the Clam Bay mangrove restoration plan was signed in 1998. Mangroves can survive "quite awhile" with a closed pass, but nobody can say for how long, said Tim Hall, an environmental consultant who has spent years monitoring Clam Bay.
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"It's concerning now, but I think you'd see adverse effects faster if we were in the midst of the rainy season and water was coming with no way to get out," Hall said.
Most susceptible are black mangroves that get oxygen through parts of their roots that stick up through the mud. The forest's red and white mangroves have other ways to get oxygen, such as through their leaves. Mangroves aren't the only cause for concern, though, Hall said.
Seagrasses need the right balance of salt and fresh water to live, and water that doesn't get flushed enough can keep seagrasses from getting enough sunlight.
Algae blooms could lead to depleted oxygen levels and fish kills. A lack of tidal exchange means mud flats that usually are exposed for foraging birds twice a day remain underwater.
"There's a lot of little things happening out there," Hall said.
When the pass filled with sand, cutting off Seagate's boating access to the Gulf of Mexico, Seagate homeowner Sue Black took notice. Then she began noticing that the water that used to be murky green had turned brown with gray scum on top, she said.
"It's just disturbing and sad," Black said.
Clam Bay fisherman Lee Lustig, Diane Lustig's husband, said water once flowed through Clam Pass with enough velocity to knock a wader down, attracting fish waiting for a tasty morsel to come out of the back bays.
"Guys are just fighting for space because the fish are there in huge numbers," he said.
They're gone, along with the white ibis he used to feed bait fish out of his hands.
"I feel a real sense of loss," he said. "It's saddening."