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The riverfront expansion soon to be under way in downtown Fort Myers will be more than just a pretty piece of scenery.

Underneath the reflection pools, bubbling fountain and new riverfront restaurants, will be a water filtration system the city hopes will help clean up the Caloosahatchee River. The goal is to filter storm runoff, which often sweeps up dirt, trash and chemicals, before it enters the river.

The Fort Myers City Council approved the riverfront project for $5.275 million at a meeting Feb. 21, said Saeed Kazemi, public works director. Construction should start within the next two weeks.

Don Paight, executive director of the Fort Myers Redevelopment Agency, said he expects the project finished by September.

The first step of construction will be to close off Edwards Drive (which will eventually be turned into a bridge separating two water detention basins) and divert traffic to Hendry Street. A fence will enclose the area, from the river to Bay Street, and excavation will begin.

The tidal area of the Caloosahatchee has too much nitrogen in its water – often from fertilizer runoff – which causes algae blooms and fish kills, said Jennifer Nelson, program administrator for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The problem is so severe, the department has required nitrogen levels be reduced by 23 percent, and is working Fort Myers, Lee County, Cape Coral and Charlotte County to develop reduction plans.

“It’s a global problem and we are no exception. Runoff from urban areas, from lawns, from agricultural areas, from a lot of different sources. ... It all contributes to the overall problem,” Nelson said.

The riverfront project will combat this pollution with several levels of filtration. Fort Myers has installed baskets in downtown storm drains to collect trash, said Andy Tilton, an engineer at Johnson Engineering, which has handled most of the project planning for the city. After rainwater is filtered by the baskets, it will soon enter new underground tanks that will allow the heavier gravel and silt to sink to the bottom.

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After those two steps, the water will flow into two detention basins that will be built on either side of Edwards Drive, between Bay and Hendry Streets downtown. These ponds also will serve as sediment pools that will settle the finer particles of sand and dirt. A shelf of wetland plants will be planted along one wall of the ponds to catch excess nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizer runoff.

“Then it flows over a weir at the end and goes into the Caloosahatchee,” Tilton said.

The South Florida Water Management District would not have given the city a permit for the riverfront project unless it included a component to improve water quality, said district intergovernmental representative Phil Flood.

“I don’t think you will visibly see an improvement in the river, and that’s because the river is so large and there are so many discharge points along the river,” Flood said. “This is just one piece, one component, and any time you can enhance the discharge and enhance the water quality of the area, it will have an improvement. It may not be visible, but there are certainly positive benefits to this project in terms of water quality.”

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