November 14, 2018

SOUTH FLORIDA — Everglades advocates and Florida’s potential next governor this week objected to an unexpected lease extension granted to a sugar company farming the site of a future reservoir — a project intended to help Florida Bay.

The South Florida Water Management District’s board of directors on Nov. 8 approved an extension of up to eight years to Florida Crystals on the 16,158-acre property designated as the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir. The lease pact was added to the district’s meeting agenda late Nov. 7.

“Illegal, shameful and undemocratic” was how Erik Eikenberg, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation, described the water district board’s action in a letter to outgoing Gov. Rick Scott. He went on to demand the resignations of the district’s governing board and Executive Director Ernie Marks.

“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,” U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-FL 18, and Ron DeSantis, currently ahead in the recount of Florida governor’s race, said in a joint statement issued by Mast.

South Florida Water Management District members and staff contend by reclaiming 560 acres currently leased to the Florida Crystals company, some preliminary work will “ensure the reservoir becomes a reality as quickly as possible.”

The Florida Crystals lease on the whole state-owned reservoir site was scheduled to expire in March.

Eikenberg disagreed, saying, “Far from allowing ‘immediate reservoir site work to proceed,’ [SFWMD Chairman Federico] Fernandez has signed away any possibility of performing site preparation or construction work on 16,158 acres of taxpayer-owned property until April 1, 2021 at the earliest. This deception and lack of transparency by a government agency is alarming.”

The National Parks Conservation Association’s Cara Capp wrote the reservoir “will be critical in directing desperately-needed freshwater flow to Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys. … This [lease extension] is a complete injustice to Floridians who are desperate for a solution to the toxic discharges devastating Florida’s coastal communities.”

Just a few weeks earlier, Everglades and Florida Bay advocates were elated when a national water resources law that authorizes work on the EAA reservoir passed the U.S. Congress and was signed by President Donald Trump.

Federal funding for half the estimated $1.8 billion cost for the reservoir remains to be appropriated by Congress. Florida lawmakers have committed to spending about $800 million over several years as the state’s share.

The EAA reservoir is a critical component to hold and treat fresh water in an area south of Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir can store fresh water that otherwise would be flushed, as a flood-prevention measure, to mainland estuaries where it triggers massive algal blooms.

Meanwhile, Florida Bay and Everglades National Park have seen harmful environmental degradation linked to a lack of historical freshwater flow.

The South Florida Water Management District said in a release that state authorization for the reservoir requires the agency to allow sugar companies and other agricultural interests leasing the state land “to continue to farm on a field-by-field basis until such time” as work on the reservoir starts.

Planners on the project to build the large reservoir, 23 feet deep, have estimated it could take eight to 10 years to complete.

Conservationists believe the reservoir could be finished in a much shorter time frame if agricultural uses were phased out more quickly.