Plan floated for new south Lee County flood control effort

Bill Smith
The News-Press

Additional resources for flood control in south Lee County could start flowing under a plan to change the division of the region's water management system becomes reality, supporters say.

A move to is underway to align south Lee County with a different part of the South Water Management District in an effort to find solutions to problems such as the Hurricane Irma flooding in areas like Citrus Park in Bonita Springs

The South Florida Water Management District is split in to two operational units, the Big Cypress and Okeechobee basins, with all of Lee County in the Okeechobee basin..

While the northern part of Lee County  is in the watershed of the Caloosahatchee River, which takes water from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, there is a natural connection between south county and water systems in the Big Cypress basin and the Everglades.

Cecil Pendergrass, chair of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, is asking colleagues to get behind an effort to change the water management designation of land in Lee County south of Daniels Parkway.

Pendergrass said south county water has more a natural connection with Big Cypress and the Everglades than to Lake O., so the change makes sense.

He also sees Big Cypress as having more of an interest in funding solutions to south county water issues.

"We're paying all this money to the Okeechobee Basin  — that's going from here up to Kissimmee," Pendergrass said. "We'll get more benefit with Big Cypress flood control resources, with dredging and managing water."

The water management district board is stacked toward the east coast, with seven of the the district board's nine votes coming from communities to the east.

To make the change, \eastern board members would need to back a move that would transfer an estimated $4 million in tax revenue from the Okeechobee Basin to Big Cypress because of different district  tax rates in the two areas.

Lee County taxpayers pay  $4.05 more per thousand dollars valuation more under the Okeechobee Basin tax rate than property owners in Collier County, who are in Big Cypress Basin.

Estero Mayor Jim Boesch said the possible change came up at a meeting of the village council on Wednesday. He favors the idea, but sees the finances, and the orientation of  most board members as making the change from Okeechobee to Big Cypress Basin as a political challenge.

State Rep. Matt Caldwell tours ongoing South Florida Water District projects. A change in the relationship between south Lee County and the district could soon hit the state Legislature.

"By us going in to the Cypress basin, they have they have $3.5 million in funds available for flood control," Boesch said. "With a vote of 7-2, I don't think things are going to change much in the current situation."  

There are two ways to changing the basin designation. The South Florida Water Management District board can initiate the change, or the county can have legislation filed to invoke the authority of the state Legislature.

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Bonita Springs city council member Fred Forbes said the matter came up when a city delegation was meeting with state lawmakers on Tuesday about Bonita's legislative priorities.

Bonita, hit hard by the record floods of late summer, is grappling with the need to updated its  flood control systems. Forbes sees a change to the Big Cypress from the Okeechobee basin as leading to better answers.

"It's a natural thing, I think it's a better fit because most of the water from Lake O does not get here to us," Forbes said. "The problems with Lake O gets in the river and goes down the river and the Gulf gets messed up."

He said there is a "good chance" the subject will come up with the council meets next week. 

Pendergrass said aligning south Lee's interests with the Big Cypress district may prove valuable in using the newly-acquired Edison Farms to store water during the rainy season.

Ben Nelson Jr., a marine contractor and former Bonita Springs mayor said changing the basin designation won't make budget battles disappear.

"That's one big thing that's been talked about several times in the past," Nelson said. "I think there is more of a sense that it is more of a natural fit because of the geographic connection, but whether that would result in a funding  increase, I don't know."

Nelson expects that even as part of the Big Cypress basin, south Lee will still have to "vie for budget dollars."  He served on the board of Bonita Utilities, which manages city water supplies, before and after his mayoral term. His late father was also a board member. 

Ernie Marks, executive director of the water management district, plans to address the district Governing Board on the issue at a meeting next Wednesday in Palm Beach.

Water district chair Daniel O'Keefe and the two east coast representatives of the  board could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

For Pendergrass, the issue comes down to dealing with the water, rather than artificial government boundaries.

"We look at things county by county — there are county lines but water doesn't know county lines," Pendergrass said. "My main interest is to bring more resources to our area, to help us with the watershed, and also help with future flooding issues — it's the right thing to do."