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Understanding Lehigh’s 311 miles of canals

August 13, 2014
By CARLA ULAKOVIC , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Residents may often ponder why there are so many canals in Lehigh Acres.

Could the canals have resulted from a plan to connect boaters to the Caloosahatchee River that lost funding; were they created to drain the Everglades; or were they dug just to make it hard to find your way around?

These are common urban legends that have spread through the community for years, noted David E. Lindsay, East County Water Control District's district manager.

Lehigh Acres' 311 miles of canals serve a purpose, which, over time, has evolved to include flood and drainage control, water quality and water conservation amongst other duties. The canals are just one portion of the water management system managed by ECWCD - a Chapter 298 Special District created by the state of Florida.

"In the early 1950's, water management theories and practices were very different than they are today," Lindsay said. "Until approximately the 1970's, water was seen as a common enemy of the state and canals were dug to provide drainage and prepare land for development."

By doing so, the natural flow of water across the land water was greatly altered.

Lindsay noted a shift in water management practices came with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970, and a realization that water is a natural resource that should be thoughtfully protected rather than discarded for drainage.

How do the canals help?

Lehigh Acres' 311 miles of canals, operated by ECWCD, collect stormwater both naturally and from road run-off. Canals help to store water and move the excess water from roads, ditches, yards, et cetra, with the aid of water control structures and retention areas.

Lee County Department of Transportation is responsible for maintenance of all drainage related to road ditches and connector swales.

"It is important for residents to realize that our waterways are connected to larger bodies of water such as the Caloosahatchee River," Lindsay said. "Point-source pollution, or pollution caused by people, can have a ripple effect in other communities. Dumping oil, trash or other such items in the waterways are not only acts punishable by law, but are harmful to the environment."

The Caloosahatchee River is an impaired water body of the state as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. These agencies are developing and implementing several programs to improve the water quality in hopes of removing waterways, like the Caloosahatchee River, from an impaired status.

Whether you live alongside a canal or not, everyone in ECWCD's boundaries pays the same flat-rate, known as a non ad valorem assessment - which is based on the size of your property not its value.

The benefits of the water management system have a district-wide impact. Assessments are levied to fund the operations of the district and to ensure that the area doesn't flood in a major storm event; to treat water before it flows out of our system and can impact watershed; and to recharge aquifers.

The current assessment rates are $26.29 per quarter acre, $52.58 per half-acre and $105.15 per acre per year.

District staff is working to improve water quality of its stormwater before it is discharged to the Caloosahatchee River. This is achieved by passing water through a filter marsh, like Harns Marsh, to allow natural grasses and plants to remove nutrients.

District staff works to remove invasive plants from its canals and waterways, and have cultivated specific native plants to help balance nutrients and improve water quality. These native plants absorb nutrients when water is held in canals in a process known as detention.

District staff mow rights-of-ways three times a year to help provide staff access to canals and structures and to limit the amount of potential debris that could end up blocking a structure in a storm event, Lindsay noted. Crews also manage plants through a series of herbicide applications.

Lehigh Acres presents a few complications for our water system, Linsday noted.

"For instance, the abundance of septic tanks dictates the water level we are allowed to hold canals. If canals are too full, in certain areas, it can flood drain fields," he said.

District staff operates each year in anticipation of a major storm or hurricane, Lindsay noted. It is a continuous process, to ensure the drainage system is free of encroachments and obstructions; that structures are in proper working order; and the correct water levels are maintained.

During a storm event, it is crucial to have all of these pieces working together to make the decisions necessary for holding or releasing water.

"311 miles of canals may seem like a lot of storage, but a study was conducted in 2007 which indicated in the event of a 100-year storm Lehigh Acres would be 15,000 acre-feet, equivalent to a reservoir four-square-miles, four feet deep, short of storage, which would result in extensive flooding," Lindsay said.

Carla Ulakovic is a community project specialist for the East County Water Control District.



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