October 23, 2019

FLORIDA KEYS — Progress on restoring the Everglades and freshwater flow to Florida Bay took a substantial step forward earlier this month, advocates say.

“This is a very big deal,” said Shannon Estenoz, chief operating officer of the Everglades Foundation. “Anything we can do to move obstacles out of the way is good.”

Florida Crystals agreed to end a controversial lease on about 6,000 acres of land in western Palm Beach County. The South Florida Water Management District eventually will convert it into a stormwater treatment area that holds and cleans fresh water that will flow into Florida Bay and Everglades National Park.

“The timeline has been moved up significantly,” water district board member Cheryl Meads, an Islamorada resident, said. “It’s all very positive and will help restore the Everglades and clean the water.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a strong supporter of Everglades restoration, said the agreement “is an important step forward in expediting construction of the [Everglades Agricultural Area] Reservoir Project and reducing the harmful discharges hurting our coastal estuaries. The EAA Reservoir Project will continue to be a top priority of my administration.”

Under reported terms of the pact, Florida Crystals walks away from 2,000 leased acres immediately and returns the rest in stages through March 2021.

“It speaks well of Florida Crystals. They are going to turn it over to us when we are ready to use it. We have that commitment,” Meads said. “It’s not in anybody’s best interest to leave the land and let it sit fallow to be overrun with unwanted vegetation and creatures.”

When construction permits are approved by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the SFWMD can begin site preparation work on the first stages of the stormwater treatment area.

Shortly after DeSantis was elected governor but not sworn in, the former SFWMD board signed lease extensions with Florida Crystals and the U.S. Sugar Corp. on two separate state-owned properties eventually slated to become essential parts of the complex Everglades restoration system.

DeSantis, who urged a delay, then pushed for a complete turnover over of the former SFWMD board and top management. Meads is among those named to the new board.

“Thanks to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ determined leadership, what began as a post-Election Day double cross by Florida Crystals and the former South Florida Water Management District board to complicate construction of the Everglades reservoir has instead now forged a path for its groundbreaking,” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation.

The Corps of Engineers will build the main reservoir, planned to be 23-feet deep over 10,100 acres. The water management district will construct and manage the treatment areas.

Earlier this week, a U.S. Congress delegation was scheduled to meet at Islamorada’s Founders Park to discuss needed projects as part of the 2020 Water Resources Development Act.

Those attending were to include South Florida and the Keys U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, along with Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Rep. Grace Napolitano of California.

Islamorada Mayor Deb Gillis and Meads will take part, along with other officials.

kwadlow@keysnews.com