The Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District could increase its assessments next year by up to $15 per acre in an effort to clean neglected canals.
In a preliminary 2014 budget discussion Monday, supervisors agreed to include a maximum $15-per-acre increase in the budget. The money would be used to acquire an extended-reach backhoe to dredge canals along Okeechobee Blvd. that have accumulated several feet of silt that is impeding drainage.
If the entire $15 increase makes it into the final budget, the district’s per-acre assessment will rise from $135 to $150. However, several supervisors supported a smaller increase.
District Administrator Stephen Yohe said his staff recently cleaned a clogged culvert on A Road and found that other canals have not been dredged and maintained the way they should. The problem could negatively affect the review of federal flood plain maps that could require residents to obtain flood insurance, he noted.
“North A Road wasn’t draining at all,” Yohe said. “No matter what we did with any of the discharge structures, full wide open, we weren’t draining North A Road, so we recognized we had a problem there in the culvert.”
Yohe said they contacted the county, which has technical responsibility for the culvert, and its staff allowed LGWCD workers to remove silt that was halfway up the pipe.
“We removed the boards that were in the flashboard riser on the north side that had been inhibiting flow, inspected the pipe, found the condition and recognized that every other pipe on Okeechobee Blvd. looked just like it,” Yohe said.
He added that he had reviewed a canal survey and cross sections taken in January 2010 and found that the canals had not been maintained to their design.
“They also surveyed cross sections of the canals, and as it turns out, those cross sections south of Okeechobee Blvd. are filled with silt 2 to 3 feet above the design section,” Yohe said, adding that the downstream canals will need to be cleaned first so that canals upstream can flow through it.
The experience convinced Yohe to put together a proposal to buy the equipment necessary to fix the problem. “That’s why we feel the need to get the necessary equipment, to have employees in-house operate on a continuous basis, because no doubt each and every one of these other canals, in fact, all the OGEM roads I’ve inspected, have similar neglect,” he said.
Supervisor John Ryan said that based on the work clearing the A Road culvert, Yohe had focused on what work could be done immediately, and ascertained that the west maintenance road on A Canal is wide enough to use the existing backhoe to clear between a third and a half of the canal width to improve flow on the north and south sides.
“The first thing that has to be done south of Okeechobee Blvd. is to rent a bulldozer and have a qualified operator widen that road, because right now that section of our right-of-way maintenance road is not wide enough to allow a piece of equipment to operate there,” Ryan said, adding that the operation might have to be coordinated with property owners.
Ryan anticipated that many of the other canals will need to be dredged and asked that sufficient money be designated to allow for clearing the A Canal in the current fiscal year and to plan for other roads in the next fiscal year.
Supervisor Don Widing favored looking into options for equipment designed especially for the size of those operations, pointing out that new equipment has been designed in recent years for that purpose.
Supervisor Frank Schiola agreed that there are areas in addition to A Road that need attention. “These canals are not functioning right now,” he said. “I don’t want to wait until January, February or March of next year to do this.”
The board gave consensus to have staff proceed immediately to build up the A Canal bank and have Yohe research equipment options to most efficiently address the drainage issues and report back at the board’s July 8 meeting.
Yohe also reported on the recently released Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, cautioning that the maps do not accurately reflect the area’s drainage system.
Yohe said county staff warned that each municipality and drainage district should review the maps, because there are serious errors and implications pertaining to residents and flood insurance.
“The flood zone designations for most properties have been downgraded, meaning that the insurance companies are going to be looking at the downgraded flood insurance map designation and charging you more,” Yohe said. “It’s the intent of Palm Beach County and the municipalities… to push back and at least give them the correct information.”
However, before the LGWCD can assert its level of flood protection, the drainage infrastructure must be working properly. “It really falls right into our previous discussion that to push back we would like to stipulate that our canals are at their designed section,” Yohe said.
To accomplish those goals, Yohe said a $10 to $15 assessment increase would be needed, explaining that every $10-per-acre assessment would bring the district about $80,000. He pointed out that the board could set the assessment higher now and reduce it later once there is more information on the actual costs.
“If I have a 5-acre estate that would impact me by $50, and certainly, if I owned a 5-acre estate, I would want to pay $50 to have my canals cleaned out,” Yohe said.
Yohe said he was not asking for a motion to approve an assessment increase immediately, but wanted direction on how to proceed.
Supervisor Robert Snowball said the lack of canal maintenance is the result of the loss of $150,000 per year in county money that used to pay for that work.
“Now we’re paying for it big time,” he said. “We have a town now, and I would hope the town would see what’s going on here and want to help with this one way or another.”
Widing said he would support no more than a $10 increase.
Schiola said he would support $15 with the understanding that the board could lower it later. “If we go to $10 and find out after our discussion that we’re going to go up, we’re going to be stuck,” he said.
Chairman David DeMarois said he would support $15 for discussion and declared a consensus to pursue that amount.