Cape Coral water shortage: Relief could be coming as rain poised to bring more water to wells

Officials see it as a choice: Do you want green lawns or water to drink, cook or bathe with?

The northeast part of Cape Coral has been in a water shortage since November but could start seeing relief as the wet season comes soon, with utility expansions slated for next year to ease the future burden of wells.

"We are at a critical stage here," Cape Coral's Bureau Chief for Water Supply Mark Elsner said. "Is a green lawn better than people not having water?"

On November 28, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) declared a water shortage and issued a one-day mandatory irrigation restriction for northeast Cape Coral and unincorporated Lee County.

"In going to a phase three water shortage, and limiting irrigation, and promoting other conservation, our endgame was to curtail or reduce usage that would curtail the decline in the aquifer to those damaging levels," Elsner said.

The chief estimates that 50% or more of the residential use is from outdoor watering.

The area experiencing the water shortage is between Nelson Road on the west, NE 24th Avenue on the east, Gator Slough on the north, and Pine Island Road on the south, forcing residents to buy and use new wells as most residents in the area are not connected to city water.

Cape Coral Spokesperson Melissa Mickey said code compliance issued approximately 400 water violations last week.

The water district's meteorologist anticipates an above-average wet season on the west coast of Florida to get the aquifers to a reasonable level, Elsner said.

Kyle Higgins, who lives in north Cape Coral, said at the city's regular meeting that he wanted to see the city put a moratorium on drilling wells and new homes to help conserve water. He addressed the issue at this week's city council meeting.

"Water issues in the north Cape continue to be a problem," Higgins said.

He said he wants more details and figures on how many homes can be supported through the aquifers.

Another resident, Joe Corrigan, said he wanted to see more action from the city on addressing the water shortage.

"The only resolution to that is long-term, and that's going to be accelerate the Utilities Extension Project and putting in the recycle plant," Corrigan said.

Corrigan is referring to a planned North Water Reclamation Facility, which will recycle and treat wastewater to supplement irrigation systems.

He worries that residents will dig deeper wells before facing the cost of installing the city water.

"You are going to have people spending $20,000 additional funds on a deeper well, and then another $35,000 to connect to the UEP, which will keep a lot of residents either from moving here or move some people out of here," Corrigan said.

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Cape Coral wells decline

A graph of the Mid-Hawthorn Aquifer's groundwater level for wells in northeast Cape Coral.
A graph of the Mid-Hawthorn Aquifer's groundwater level for wells in northeast Cape Coral.

The state agency can put restrictions on the city at any time, such as curtailing building permits, which can affect future development.

Since 2000, the Mid-Hawthorn Aquifer's groundwater level has seen a noticeable and steady decline in the city.

"We've seen this aquifer decline because there's more decline during the dry season, than the increases during the wet season," Elsner said.

The Mid-Hawthorn Aquifer, approximately 125 feet underground, provides water to many private wells. The Mid-Hathorn Aquifer is not where the city gets its drinking water.

The agency previously stated that if the aquifer reached below -101.83 ft, the minimal developable limit, permanent harm to the aquifer could occur via aquifer compaction, where sediment is rearranged leading to less storage of water.

The chief is optimistic about Cape Coral's water shortage as conditions are seemingly stable heading into the wet season, which he said starts around May 22.

Elsner said in November the aquifer was around -93 feet and is now -90 feet, much lower than projected initially.

"We are in much better shape than what we projected in November," Elsner said. "At this point, we thought we would be around -104 feet."

He said the aquifer typically sees recharge once the wet season hits, but last year the city saw below-average rainfall.

"Instead of seeing the aquifer increase during the wet season, it basically stayed level," Elsner said.

City water coming soon

The North 1 West Area Utilities Extension Project and North 2 Utilities Extension Project comprise two-thirds of the area, with the latter already completed, and are poised to help resolve parts of the issue.

Elsner said he's confident in the aquifers recovering, pointing toward the areas South of Pine Island Road that were previously using wells.

"When regional services were provided, water levels started recovering after installation of the services," Elsner said.

They will provide water, sewer, and irrigation services in phases to replace septic and shallow groundwater wells and connect households to the city's potable water treatment and distribution facilities.

The west area started construction in late 2023 and is slated to be completed in 2025 with the East portion starting soon afterward.

Once the majority of homes connect to the city's water, the strain on the aquifers should be lessened significantly, Elsner said.

Many new homeowners in the north are experiencing issues with their wells because of the drop in water levels and the exponential growth in the city.

"Within this area, (the city) estimates there are about 11,600 homes, 20% of those are on city water," Elsner said.

According to the U.S. Census, the city has grown from a city of 154,305 to 216,992 between 2010 and 2022.

He added that though homes may be on city water, they could still be using wells for irrigation.

However, he encourages residents to switch their irrigation water source once the option is available.

Cape Coral to require permits for certain irrigation systems

Aside from issuing citations to residents who violate the watering schedule, the city has taken other steps toward water conservation.

The city accelerated the implementation of the 2023 Conservation Ordinance that will go into effect on June 1.

The ordinance is meant to increase irrigation efficiency and limit harmful nutrient run-off by established irrigation design standards and a landscape irrigation permit fee.

A permit will be required for the installation of landscape irrigation systems and modifications to an existing irrigation system that cost $2,500 or more.

This does not require existing systems to be altered or modified to meet new irrigation design standards.

Luis Zambrano is a Watchdog/Cape Coral reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. You can reach Luis at Lzambrano@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @Lz2official.

This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Cape Coral water shortage: What's the status, what's the solution?