Lee County, Bonita Springs and Estero renew push to join Big Cypress Basin
Some of Bonita Springs' and Estero's elected leaders say they can ask for a change that could get south Lee County more funding for water projects.
All of Lee County belongs to the South Florida Water Management District. Lee County, Bonita Springs and Estero have renewed efforts to transition the southern parts of Lee County under the Big Cypress Basin and the board that governs it.
“My goal is to try to get more attention and more funding for the areas of south Lee County for future funding and water quality elements,” said Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, who represents a southern part of Lee County.
“The way the district is now, a lot of our funding and resources go to the center of the state. We’re looking to get resources closer to home,” Pendergrass said.
The Big Cypress Basin, which covers Collier County and part of Monroe County, is one of two watershed basins that encompass the South Florida Water Management District. Lee County currently falls under the Okeechobee Basin, which reaches from Orange County down to Monroe and Miami-Dade counties.
The Big Cypress Basin and the South Florida Water Management District oversee water resources and provide flood control for southern Florida counties.
Lee County pays about $27.95 per $100,000 of taxable property value to the South Florida Water Management District. The rate is more than $4 higher than the property tax rate of $23.44 per $100,000 of taxable value charged in the area under the Big Cypress Basin.
Like Pendergrass, elected officials in Bonita Springs and Estero say joining the Big Cypress Basin could result in collected tax dollars being used for local water projects.
Estero Councilor Jim Boesch said he would like to see potential funding used towards removing silt in the Estero River.
“It would help put us in a much better position to start investing in the land,” Boesch said of the 62 acres at the corner of Corkscrew Road and U.S. 41 that the village purchased in January.
Bonita Springs Mayor Peter Simmons said water “doesn’t know county boundaries.”
"The city of Bonita Springs wants to do its part in getting the water right. We’re dealing with water quantity and dealing with water quality simultaneously,” Simmons said. “People in leadership positions want to get this solved and get more funding for more water projects.”
How this might happen
Pendergrass, Simmons and Boesch said they are hopeful to get support for the change from the South Florida Water Management District and state legislators.
A move to the Big Cypress Basin can be done through legislation or through approval by the South Florida Water Management District governing board.
A bill in the 2018 legislative session could have made the change in south Lee County, but the action failed.
Chauncey Goss, chairman of the water management governing board, said he is supportive of looking at the basin’s boundary line.
“The current boundary is set along a political line. We set them on hydrographic or watershed lines,” Goss said. “When I look at that, it doesn’t make sense to me. Nowhere else in our system do we use a political line.”
Boesch and Simmons attended a recent Big Cypress Basin Board meeting and met with basin chair Charlette Roman and district staff to discuss how the South Florida Water Management District can help the communities.
“The main focus here is what is it they feel they need help with that the South Florida Water Management District can assist with,” Roman said. “Certainly expansion of the basin is one of those possibilities.”
The water management district also established a working group that includes Bonita Springs and Estero, Roman said.
Estero Councilor Boesch said the potential move to the Big Cypress Basin is a positive for the village's future.
“This should be an opportunity for us,” he said.