By Dan Moffett
The Inlet Cay community in Ocean Ridge started off in the late 1960s as a collaboration between engineers and nature in the Intracoastal wetlands off the town’s western shore.
The engineers hauled in mountains of fill, dredged out canals for boat docks and manufactured buildable ground where there was none. Nature held up its end with stunning and mostly unspoiled waterfront views.
The result was a tidy 25-acre island, cut sharp as a jigsaw puzzle piece, only a 30-foot bridge ride from the shore. Today the neighborhood has some 60 homes, most valued between $2 million and $3 million.
Nobody talked about sea rise back in the ’60s. But then, nobody likes to talk about it now.
The words never came up during an hourlong discussion at the October Town Commission meeting, when Inlet Cay residents complained of recurring drainage problems that have persisted for decades, despite the town’s persistent efforts to solve them.
Clara Caldwell, who has owned a home at the end of Spanish River Drive on the western side of the island since 2002, spoke for a group of beleaguered neighbors who endure flooded driveways and lawns several times a year.
“The worst day ever was Oct. 2,” Caldwell said. “It was impossible to enter or exit the driveway.”
Besides Spanish River, the street flooding hit nearby Bimini Cove Drive. Caldwell said a neighbor took out his canoe. She said the flooding has become a worsening safety issue, not only trapping residents in their houses but providing an environment for mosquitoes and disease.
“This is a very problematic area,” Caldwell said.
It turns out a confluence of events on Oct. 2 created what amounts to a perfect tide: the Earth, moon and sun aligned to create a king tide. An easterly wind kept water from moving out to sea. Heavy rains fell, saturating the ground, and Lake Okeechobee rose above 17 feet, forcing water managers to increase discharge rates.
Mayor Geoff Pugh said the Intracoastal rose about 3 feet higher than usual, above the one-way valves designed to carry water off Inlet Cay. Pugh said the “amount of water pressure was phenomenal” and overwhelmed 12-inch drainage pipes.
The mayor said that a town contractor who inspected the valves and pipes later in October found damage, barnacle buildup and obstructions that kept them from working properly. Pugh said he’s optimistic that repairs made to the pipes and a more aggressive maintenance schedule will solve problems for the short term.
Long-term solutions get a lot more complicated. The commissioners are expected to hire an outside engineering firm to assess the chronic drainage problems on Spanish River Drive and elsewhere in the town.
Caldwell and her neighbors support going forward with the study, but other residents have told the town they would just as soon not. Too much knowledge could come with unwelcome consequences.
Previous engineering reports have suggested that parts of Ocean Ridge have been slowly sinking over time. Contractors who have worked in the Inlet Cay neighborhood have reported problems with high groundwater levels and unstable, mushy soil. The island, after all, was manufactured mostly with fill.
The results of another, more definitive engineering study would put on the public record conclusions about the manmade island and its future that might not be favorable to property values.
Caldwell told commissioners she wants them to be forthcoming about the extent of her neighborhood’s drainage problems. Residents can handle the truth, she said.
“Start telling us the facts and not the fables,” she said. “Don’t tell us what you think we want to hear. Tell us what is actually happening because it is very, very important to us that we prepare for it.”