Clam Pass dredging ushers in slow-motion race against time

A dredger has begun digging sand out of Clam Pass in North Naples in a slow-motion race against time to save a dying mangrove forest.

Heavy winter rains and poor tidal flushing at the mouth of the choked off pass have flooded patches of mangroves that grow below the Pelican Bay neighborhood’s high-rise condos, causing an 8-acre die-off. More mangroves are showing signs of stress, biologist Tim Hall said. He said the die-off might not be over.

“We don’t know yet,” Hall said. “It’s too early to tell whether we’ve hit the bottom of that downward slide.”

Hall, representing a Pelican Bay taxing district, has been trying to get a Clam Pass dredging permit from the U.S. Corps of Engineers for almost two years. The review faced hurdles with endangered species like the smalltooth sawfish and red knot.

Besides that, dredging at Clam Pass has generated intense public scrutiny over its effect on sea grass beds and boating access between the Gulf of Mexico and the Seagate neighborhood and a county kayak and canoe launch.

Reviewers signed off on the 10-year permit — Hall called it a compromise over the extent of dredging and what estuary conditions would trigger new dredging — and Collier County commissioners declared an emergency to speed up the hiring of the dredger.

Work has been going on for about a week, and is on schedule to be completed by the end of the month and the official start of sea turtle nesting season.

“The weather’s been good and he’s made very good progress,” said Neil Dorrill, director of the Pelican Bay Services Division, the arm of county government overseeing the dredging.

A mangrove die-off grew to 50 acres in the Clam Bay estuary before a 1998 dredging project restored flows to the forest. Crews were back at work at Clam Pass in 2002, 2007 and 2013 — another emergency dredging to reopen the pass.

Collier County was working to get a new 10-year dredging permit at the time, but frustrated county commissioners put that on hold to focus on an emergency permit and transferred authority for Clam Pass to the Pelican Bay taxing district.

The emergency dredging in 2013, by design, did not remove all the sand from interior portions of the pass, accelerating shoaling that has caused the new emergency.

Both emergencies triggered impromptu volunteer brigades of beachgoers to take turns shoveling a path from the Gulf of Mexico to the back bays of Clam Pass.

Collier County plans to close its Clam Pass Park in North Naples on Wednesday and Thursday because of construction traffic related to a Clam Pass dredging project. The park’s boardwalk will be open but access to the beach from the boardwalk will be closed. The park’s canoe and kayak launch also will be closed.

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