November 21, 2018

SFWMD
Bulldozers clear crops and growth from 560 acres Nov. 14 south of Lake Okeechobee after the South Florida Water Management District approved a revised and extended lease with Florida Crystals.

SFWMD Bulldozers clear crops and growth from 560 acres Nov. 14 south of Lake Okeechobee after the South Florida Water Management District approved a revised and extended lease with Florida Crystals.

SOUTH FLORIDA — Bulldozers began clearing 560 acres of land for a “rapid start” on the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir Nov. 14, but in the wake of a controversial lease extension, Florida Keys advocates for Florida Bay largely dismissed it as a stunt.

“We are simply outraged at the actions of the South Florida Water Management District,” said Elizabeth Jolin, an Islamorada outdoors guide and co-founder of Florida Bay Forever.

“It’s more underhanded cronyism and more obstructionism by people who stand to have a financial gain,” said Sandy Moret, a fly-fishing outfitter in Islamorada and a board member of Bullsugar, a mainland Everglades and water-quality group.

On Nov. 8, the South Florida Water Management District’s board voted to extend a lease on 16,158 acres of state-owned land south of Lake Okeechobee, designated site of the EAA reservoir, to Florida Crystals, a sugar firm. The lease was added to the board agenda late Nov. 7.

In return for making 560 acres available immediately, Florida Crystals secured a lease for the balance of the land that will run at least two years and could run for eight years, depending on reservoir construction progress.

An area of 560 acres is less than one square mile. The property newly leased to Florida Crystals covers more than 25 square miles.

The earlier lease for the full site of about 16,500 acres was scheduled to end in March 2019.

The Everglades Foundation and other environmental supporters were hopeful for a shorter design-and-build schedule for the reservoir rather than the current timeline of about a decade.

As planned, the massive EAA reservoir will hold and treat fresh water that can help restore the natural water flow through the Everglades system to eventually reach Florida Bay. Both the Everglades and the bay have suffered from a lack of fresh water.

The water district plans to use the 560 acres as a staging area to store rocks needed to build the massive reservoir, declaring last week’s land-clearing “the first phase of reservoir construction.”

“Today, heavy equipment is moving and construction is underway to deliver the reservoir Florida has promised to its taxpayers as soon as possible,” district board chairman board Federico Fernandez said in a Nov. 14 statement.

Florida Bay advocates rejected the water district’s rationale for the extended lease.

“This is a government agency that should be working for the people and is discovered to have been working in direct opposition to the people’s best interest,” Jolin said. “It is unconscionable for this [water district] board, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, to take these actions as Scott exits office. … It is unbelievable to witness this kind of blatant disrespect and disregard for the will of the people.”

She continued, “This scenario would sound preposterous even in a Carl Hiaasen novel. And yet, this is the reality for Everglades restoration and the citizens of Florida.”

“Lame-duck politics,” Moret said. “They’re choosing a relatively minor industry, the sugar companies, over Florida’s major industry, which is tourism.”

Before the Nov. 8 vote, governor-elect Ron DeSantis and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-FL 18, issued a joint statement urging the water district not to decide on the Florida Crystals lease.

“We will not support any lease extension that could delay the construction of the reservoir in direct contradiction of the intention of both the United States Congress and Florida Legislature,” said the statement from Mast’s office.

The water district said a legislative bill that approved the reservoir site requires that agricultural interests continue to lease land until it is needed for reservoir construction.

“The most optimistic design timeline for the reservoir is two years,” the water district said in an online post. “The land will be fully available for unrestricted construction at that point, assuming federal funding is appropriated to match the state’s financial commitment for the estimated $1.6 billion cost of the project.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com