Cape Coral and Lee County staff were once again directed by officials to work together to find solutions to the North Spreader Canal issue.
An ad hoc committee, made up of Mayor John Sullivan, Cape Coral Councilmember Kevin McGrail and Lee County Commissioners Ray Judah and John Manning, met Thursday at the Old Lee County Courthouse for an update on the spreader and boat lift issue.
The county would like the Ceitus boat lift, which was removed with permission from the state, replaced, but the city disagrees.
At a May 15 meeting, the boards avoided declaring an impasse on the issue, instead directing staff to collaborate on research and data collection to find solutions to ensure that waters flowing from the spreader will not negatively impact neighboring estuaries and, ultimately, Charlotte Harbor.
The committee was formed, with the goal of meeting in 180 days.
Thursday's meeting opened with a presentation on data collection activities by ecologist Kevin Erwin, who was hired by the county as a consultant.
Early on in the presentation, Sullivan called for an adjournment, citing what he called a lack on the county's part to collaborate with city employees.
"The implication was that we would work together as a team," he said of conducting the research. "I don't think there was any intention on the part of the county to work together as a team."
City staff confirmed that they had not met with county employees.
"This is the first time we've gotten together," city engineer Oliver Clarke said.
Sullivan said the city would defend its position on not replacing the lift, in accordance with the Department of Environmental Protection's ruling, and challenged the commission to take the issue into the courtroom if desired.
"I'm no longer willing to participate," Sullivan said, adding the drawnout process has become a waste of taxpayers' money and staff time.
While Manning voiced his agreement to adjourn after hearing the mayor's prepared statement, Judah and McGrail supported further discussion.
"I was very disappointed we did not get a cooperative effort," McGrail said of staff not sharing data and notes over the last six months as agreed upon.
However, he noted, he wanted to hear Erwin's complete presentation.
Judah explained that he originally supported the lift removal of the barrier because the agreement called for its replacement in the same location or farther north.
He advocated with the city and DEP to be able to address further erosion, the reason the first barrier was removed.
"This was a regional issue," he said. "It shouldn't be thrust solely on the backs of Cape Coral."
Judah expressed concern that the city did not show "good faith" when it applied for a permit order from the DEP to replace the lift, indicating that the city asked the state agency for denial. He also addressed a recent resolution by council.
On Aug. 31, the Cape Coral City Council passed a resolution that it would work with the county commission "on projects that provide an environmental benefit to the waterways of the state," but not on replacing the boat lift.
"We can't just walk away from this," Judah said, adding that the resolution does not determine for county officials whether the lift needs replacing.
In his presentation, Erwin explained that the county has 31 monitoring systems, with nearly 20 depth recorders deployed to collect data on water quantity and quality, like salinity, nutrients, pressure and temperature.
Deployed about three weeks ago, they are located throughout the system.
"What we have is going to give us a tremendous amount of information," he said. "It's not perfect, but we're going to work together with the city."
The raw data will be read about every 10 days. As the data is analyzed, staffers will be able to provide officials with a recommended solution.
"This is the beginning, and I think it's a good beginning," Erwin said.
He asked to extend the study through the dry season, which ends in June.
McGrail questioned whether prior available data was reviewed.
"We've supposedly been studying this to death," he said.
Erwin explained that more data and different data is need to make a recommendation on a model for moving forward on the issue.
The city's ecological consultant suggested determining exactly what questions the study should answer and reviewing the existing data.
"Let's go back and look at what data we do have and fill in the blanks," Anthony Janicki said.
"I think this is a good first step," he added.
A motion was made for staff to collaborate on the research and collect data to find a solution to the issue. It passed 3-1, with Sullivan dissenting.