LEE COUNTY — The Franklin Lock recreational area on the Caloosahatchee River no longer includes a designated area for swimming.
Closures of the swimming area have been common in recent years. According to the U.S. Corps of Engineers, health concerns about the bacteria levels in the water have caused the beach to be closed 29 times in the past three years.
The most recent closure, however, reflects a change in the recreation area use, documented in the Central and Southern Florida Okeechobee Waterway Master Plan Update published Oct. 28, 2018. Due to safety concerns, not only due to the frequent incidents of high bacteria counts in the water but also due to the danger posed to swimmers by alligators and boats, the corps opted to close the swimming beach in favor of other recreational activities.
“Water safety and recreation are important missions of the corps, nationwide. We want visitors to our recreation areas to have fun and be safe. During the review of the Okeechobee Waterway Master Plan, a variety of safety concerns were considered, resulting in the determination to close the swimming area, and replace it with another form of water-related recreation,” explained Erica Skolte of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Communications Office.
“We are currently pursuing the possibility of creating a kayak launching facility to provide another opportunity for safe water-based recreation at W.P. Franklin,” she stated.
In 2017, the corps reviewed the Franklin Lock as part of the master plan update. The public was notified about the pending change in 2017 with a scoping letter about the plan updates. Public comment was accepted through Jan. 10, 2018. A public workshop was held in LaBelle on Aug. 13, 2018.
The Okeechobee Waterway (OWW) Master Plan update was approved and the FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) was signed by the Jacksonville District Commander, Col. Andrew Kelly, in December 2018. The plan proposed the closing of the WP Franklin Beach. Once the plan was signed by the commander, staff began removing the infrastructure from the beach to include the beach line and signage, which was completed on 16 January 2019.
Last week, operations staff began placing sod to restore the sandy area to grass, explained Ms. Skolte.
Since the closing, corps volunteers and park rangers have been working to verbally advise visitors that the area is no longer designated for swimming, she explained. “We recently posted temporary signage to that effect as we had safety concerns about people entering the water from the shoreline and venturing out into the boating lane used to access our boat launch. We are currently preparing more corps standard signage to that effect.”
The change will save the corps about $20,000 to #25,000 per year, which was the cost of maintaining the sand beach.
The W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam complex is located on 57 acres of corps-owned property located on the north and south banks of the Caloosahatchee River. The lock chamber is a reinforced concrete structure approximately 400 feet long, 56 feet wide, and 14 feet deep with steel sector gates. The lock gates are operated by machinery and control houses that are located adjacent to the lock chamber. The spillway is reinforced concrete with eight gates that have a discharge capacity of 28,900 cubic feet per second (cfs).
The property includes administrative buildings, a recreation area, and a campground. The administration buildings and the recreation area are located on the south side of the property, while the RV campground restroom buildings, dump station, a courtesy dock, and a boat ramp are located on an island between the old river channel and the lock spillway (Price 2014). Buildings on the south side include the old lock tender’s residence which has been renovated into a Visitors and Environmental Education Center. A one-story, concrete block building with two garage bays serves as the main office building. The recreation area includes landscaped picnic areas, playground, boat ramp, comfort station and shower house and parking areas.