Site work starts on EAA reservoir STA

Lake Okeechobee News/Katrina Elsken
Site preparation work for the future Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir began Nov. 14, 2018 on 560 acres of former sugarcane fields.

PALM BEACH COUNTY — Site work on the stormwater treatment area (STA) for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir began last week.

On April 30, Gov. Ron DeSantis, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that site work has begun for the 6,500-acre STA.

“Today marks a critical milestone for Everglades restoration and achieving our state’s long-term environmental goals,” said Gov. DeSantis. “When I took office, I made expediting the EAA reservoir project a top priority. Beginning construction means we are a big step closer to moving more clean water south to the Everglades and lessening harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.”

The South Florida Water Management District has executed a $1.3 million contract for the first phase of construction on the STA component of the project. The entire project is expected to cost more than $1.8 billion. After the initial site preparation, the SFWMD will begin construction of canals and berms for the STA.

Support for the EAA reservoir and STA project has been widespread.

“We did it. I’m proud to report that work has begun on the EAA Reservoir Project. Its benefits to our estuaries and the Everglades are finally within sight,” said Chauncey Goss, SFWMD governing board chairman.

“I applaud the leadership of Governor DeSantis in expediting and advancing vital Everglades restoration projects like the EAA Reservoir Project,” said DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein. “DEP looks forward to working with the water management district to complete this important project that will store and treat water, moving water south into the Everglades and protect the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.”

“This is a big deal,” said Col. Andrew Kelly, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. “This is another step that allows us to continue the momentum we’ve experienced over the past few years in restoring the ecosystem in South Florida. Much still remains to be done, but we are happy with the progress we continue to make on this critical project.”

“We are happy to see this Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan approved project finally getting under way!” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner. “In 1997, when the announcement was made to purchase the Talisman land for Everglades restoration, we realized the importance of the reservoir project even though we suffered job losses. Shared adversity is not a new concept to the Glades farming communities, so we are extremely proud of our support of Everglades restoration. We are looking forward to the completion of all CERP projects, particularly the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) since we know that this project will have the biggest benefit to Lake Okeechobee, the estuaries and the Everglades.”

“The longstanding partnership between the farming community, the State of Florida and the federal government has helped pave the way for the design and construction of the EAA. The farming community continues to show its leadership and willingness to play a major role in Everglades restoration and the EAA reservoir is another example of their commitment in this effort,” said Gary Ritter of Florida Farm Bureau. “The design and construction of the EAA reservoir has little effect on current farming production in the EAA. However, given the excellent work our farmers have done in improving water quality through the implementation of BMPs (best management practices), this project will help complement the work agriculture has been doing in the area for the past 25 to 26 years. Looking back, EAA farmers were charged with reducing phosphorus concentrations in the region by 25% and have met or exceeded that goal every year. The average reduction has been roughly 55% during the 25- to 26-year history of the BMP program in the area. Regional projects like the EAA reservoir certainly complement our efforts.”

“With this permit, the STA piece of the project will increase our capacity to both clean water and allow it to flow south into a parched Everglades National Park and Florida Bay,” said Audubon Florida’s Executive Director Julie Wraithmell. “It has been incredibly dry, and the timing of this permit approval is perfect. Moving water south ensures we are replenishing our aquifers. We need that freshwater for the sake of the bay, the park and for South Florida families.”

“We are thrilled to see the progress being made on advancing the EAA reservoir project,” said Rob Moher, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “The fact that the STA is beginning construction underscores the commitment by the SFWMD governing board and state leadership to expedite this key Everglades restoration project. The EAA reservoir is a long-awaited piece of the restoration puzzle.”

The EAA Reservoir Project is a joint Everglades restoration project between the SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. SFWMD is building the water-cleansing STA, which is expected to be complete in 2023. The U.S. Army Corps will build the 10,000-acre storage reservoir, which is expected to be complete in 2028 (with three years for engineering and design and five years of construction).

Farmers help expedite project

Work on the EAA reservoir project actually began in 2018.

In November 2018, the SFWMD board voted to extend a lease on about 16,000 acres of farmland in the EAA for eight years, with a provision that the lease could be terminated after 20 months with four months’ notice. At the time, then-governing board chairman Federico Fernandez explained, the lease change would accelerate EAA reservoir construction because it allowed SFWMD to immediately take back 560 acres to use as a staging area to stockpile rocks and materials, and to mine for additional material. Provisions within the lease extension also allowed SFWMD and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct geological testing throughout the property, even on active sugar cane fields.

Worked started the next week, with fields of sugar cane bulldozed so construction materials could be mined and stockpiled on the site. Geotechnical work also began on the project site at that time.

In April 2019, Florida Crystals sent a letter to the SFWMD governing board offering to release land from the lease early if the EAA reservoir project was expedited. The original plan was to build the reservoir before the STA. In 2019, the new SFWMD governing board decided to go ahead with the STA even before the design for the reservoir itself is complete. Based on Florida Crystals’ commitment to transition land to the district for the EAA Reservoir Project, the district provided Florida Crystals dates it would need access to the project site to implement the expedited construction schedule for the Stormwater Treatment Area.

Corps expedites permits

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped expedite the project by pushing the federal permits through in about half the time the process normally takes. It usually takes more than three years to go through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It requires federal agencies to consider the potential environmental impacts of their proposed actions and any reasonable alternatives before undertaking a major federal action. A NEPA analysis includes review of how the project would affect things such as tribal lands and endangered species. Each federal agency impacted has to sign off on the NEPA analysis if it affects their area. Each of these agencies also has to conduct hearings for public comment. The corps has to receive and address the comments. The permitting process includes designated time frames for advertising proposed actions and periods of public comment before a permit is issued.

First attempt to build EAA reservoir halted in 2007

The current project is the second plan to build an EAA reservoir. Original construction of the reservoir started more than a decade ago.

The SFWMD Everglades Consolidated report from 2001 tells the story of the Talisman Sugar Co, property. The purchase agreement between Talisman Sugar Co., the U.S. Department of the Interior and The Nature Conservancy was funded by a cooperative agreement between the Interior, TNC and the SFWMD. Talisman committed to selling its entire holdings in the EAA, totaling approximately 53,500 acres.

A second agreement involved the SFWMD, Interior, TNC, Talisman and Sugar Interests, including U.S. Sugar Co., Florida Crystals and the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative (referred to in the report as “the Sugar Interests”). Through this agreement, the SFWMD would acquire approximately 21,000 acres directly from Talisman and approximately 29,000 acres from the Sugar Interests in exchange for Talisman conveying to the Sugar Interests the balance of the Talisman land. The Sugar Interests reserved use of the Talisman and Sugar Interest lands for sugar cane farming prior to district project implementation. The Interior contributed funding for approximately $108 million, and SFWMD contributed approximately $38.5 million.

In 2004, under Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration, a plan was advanced to speed up some aspects of the Everglades Restoration. The EAA reservoir was one of the eight projects chosen.

“By accelerating the funding, design and construction of these projects, the Everglades will experience positive benefits much sooner … and in a more cost-effective manner. As opposed to the ‘pay as you go’ approach, taxpayer dollars needed for construction will be significantly leveraged. The South Florida Water Management District will finance project construction with ‘Certificates of Participation’ revenue bonding. Financing and fast-tracking these projects NOW helps avoid the inevitable increases in construction materials and labor costs,” explained a 2004 SFWMD press release.

As often happens with Everglades projects, not all environmentalists agreed on the best course of action. And then politics got in the way.

A reservoir to hold 190,000 acre- feet of water was to be built on the former Talisman property. Construction on this project started, but in 2007, work was suspended after a group of environmentalists filed a lawsuit. By the time the lawsuit was dropped, Gov. Charlie Crist was in office, and he announced his own River of Grass plan for the Everglades, a proposal to buy even more EAA land. The Acceler8 projects were no longer a priority. Some of the property was used for a flow equalization basin (FEB). The remainder, still in state owners, was leased for farming until the recent approval of the new EAA reservoir and STA plan.

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