EAA reservoir plans: Whatever happened to Acceler8?

OKEECHOBEE — Once upon a time, there was a plan to use thousands of acres of sugar cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir to store water to help restore the Everglades. A state funding source was proposed to expedite the construction.

Then a political change in Tallahassee under a new Republican governor caused water managers to change course.

The year was 2008. The governor whose administration halted the plan to build the reservoir on Everglades Agricultural Area sugar farm land was Charlie Crist.

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.

Buying the land was one thing. Funding the project was another.

Over the years, funding has been a continual problem in the federal/state partnership to restore the Everglades, and as a result, projects have been repeatedly stalled. According to a 2016 report by the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Program, since the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 2000, only about 16-18 percent of the projects have been funded.

In 2004, under Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s administration, a plan was advanced to speed up some aspects of the Everglades Restoration.

ACCELER8 was proposed as a major boost for Everglades restoration by expediting eight restoration projects:
• C-43 (Caloosahatchee River) West Reservoir;
• Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir;
• Everglades Agricultural Area Stormwater Treatment Area Expansion;
• Picayune Strand (Southern Golden Gate Estates) Restoration;
• C-44 (St. Lucie Canal) Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area;
• Water Preserve Areas (Includes Site 1 Impoundment, C-9 Impoundment, C-11 Impoundment, Acme Basin B Discharge, WCA-3A/3B Seepage Management);
• Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands; and,
• C-111 Spreader Canal.

“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.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, a recurring theme in the Everglades saga. And it might have worked. But as often happens with Everglades projects, not all environmentalists agreed on the best course of action. And then politics got in the way.

Under Gov. Bush, “the South Florida Water Management District set about executing the programs and designing the projects,” explained John Mitnik, SFWMD  Director for Operations, Engineering and Construction.

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, he explained, a group of environmentalists filed a lawsuit and work on the reservoir was suspended.

By the time the lawsuit was dropped, Governor 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. Funding issues meant the projects were delayed or continued at a less than expedited pace. Some of the projects are currently under construction.

As for Charlie Crist’s River of Grass project — a $1.75 billion deal to buy 187,000 acres of sugar farm land — once again a change in governors derailed an Everglades restoration plan.

The state still owns the Talisman land originally proposed for the EAA reservoir. Over the years some of the property has been used for a flow equalization basin and for water treatment areas.

But about 15,000 acres of the property could still be used for a reservoir. That idea was discussed at the Jan. 11, Florida Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources meeting.

The subcommittee will meet again on Wednesday, Jan. 25 from 10 a.m. to noon in Tallahassee. The meeting can be viewed live online at http://www.flsenate.gov/Committees/Show/AEN/.

Video of the Jan. 11 meeting can also be viewed online on that same site.

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