Pending Project Would Help Clean Up Lake Hunter

wetlands north of lake hunterDrivers on Sikes Boulevard may soon notice construction work in the wetlands area south of the RP Funding Center.

The wetlands are slated to be cleared of invasive vegetation and three ponds built as part of a stormwater filtration system; it’s being created to reduce harmful nutrients, trash and sediments flowing into Lake Hunter, said Laurie Smith, manager of the city’s lakes and stormwater division.

A nature/educational path with benches is also planned to give birders and others an opportunity to enjoy the improved eight-acre wetlands area, she said.

During Monday afternoon’s City Commission meeting, commissioners will be asked to approve construction funds for the project that has been in the making for more than four years.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District will pay $526,990 toward the project through a matching grant, and the city will dip into its stormwater utilities fund to cover the rest of the $1.4 million cost. The stormwater budget is funded by a monthly fee residents pay as part of the utility bills they receive from Lakeland Electric.

The new system is designed to filter runoff from a 108-acre drainage sub-basin north of Lake Hunter, which includes runoff from the RP Funding Center campus and West Lime Street over to West Main Street, Smith said.

Currently, the stormwater flows untreated into a small canal that passes under Sikes Boulevard to an outfall just east of the boat ramp in the city’s small Lake Hunter park.

Untreated stormwater flows through the wetlands north of Sikes Boulevard, seen in the top of the photo, and into Lake Hunter, bottom left.

There are 60 such outfalls that direct untreated stormwater into Lake Hunter so the treatment system will not eliminate pollution problems. However, the project will have a significant impact, Smith said. An environmental assessment calculated it would reduce the nutrient load by 400 pounds a year, which Smith estimates is 10 to 15 percent of all the nutrients flowing into Lake Hunter.

The nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus are found in all Central Florida lakes; however excessive loads can cause algae blooms that in worst-case scenarios result in fish kills.

The city is under mandates from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection to reduce nutrient levels not only in Lake Hunter, but also in Lake Bonny, Lake Parker, Lake Hollingsworth and Crystal Lake, Smith said.

Lake Hunter was given top priority among the city’s five regulated lakes. After this project is completed, the city will move onto projects to boost the health of the other lakes, she said.

The Lake Hunter project has been in the works for so long because of the time needed to complete the permitting and funding processes and to acquire the land, Smith said. The city, which owned part of the wetlands area, went through a process of asking for and receiving a land donation from the Florida Department of Transportation to bring the parcel up to the eight acres needed for the project.

When completed, the system of ponds, wetlands, equipment and devices will work together to filter out sediments and nutrients and collect trash in an area that will be regularly cleaned by Public Works crews, Smith said.

During a city commission agenda-study session Friday morning, City Manager Manager Tony Delgado said that city staff worked out a creative solution when it found that the Swiftmud grant would not meet the 50/50 funding level projected when the process started. In the intervening years, material prices and demand for construction crews have risen, he said.

Swiftmud (a popular name for the Southwest Florida Water Management District) delivered its promised half-million-dollar grant last October.

In December, the city requested bids, but only one bid came in and at $1.8 million it was nearly $800,000 higher than projected, Delgado said. Disappointed, the city went out for bids again. The second time around, the two bids that came in were even higher, $2.04 million and $2.07 million, he said.

The city could not reduce the scope of the project and still be eligible for the Swiftmud grant so staff asked for an estimate from Larson’s Grading and Paving, a contractor with an existing competitively bid labor and equipment project.

The estimate came in at $1,133,506, minus the cost of materials, Delgado said. Public Works staff said materials could be pulled out of the city’s stock in the construction warehouse, relying on previously competitively bid purchases. That would add another $335,000 to the project cost, bringing the total to $1,468,506.

While above the four-year-old cost estimate used to get the 50/50 matching grant, it still would be considerably less expensive than any of the bids, Delgado said.

Monday’s City Commission meeting starts at 3 p.m. in City Hall, 228 S. Massachusetts Ave.

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