UPDATED: Florida Crystals voluntarily agrees to terminate lease early to expedite construction of storm water treatment area

PALM BEACH COUNTY Florida Crystals is living up to the promise to make leased land available as needed for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir and stormwater treatment area (STA).

On Sept. 30, the New Hope Sugar Company (part of the Florida Crystals Corporation) sent a letter voluntarily terminating its lease on lands needed to expedite completion of the 6,000-acre STA.

“New Hope understands that the district is accelerating construction of the EAA reservoir project. New Hope will transition land covered by this lease as needed by the district for construction of the Stormwater Treatment Area associated with the EAA reservoir in advance of the lease’s earliest termination date of March 31, 2021,” states the letter signed by Armando Tabernilla.

“Pursuant to section 13.3 of the lease, New Hope hereby provides notice that it is terminating designated fields in the lease early in accordance with the schedule in the attached Exhibit A. Per S. 373.4598, Florida Statutes, New Hope many continue to farm these fields on a field-by-field basis until its operations are incompatible with implementation of the EAA Reservoir Project, as reasonably determined by the district. It is our understanding that the district will provide at least five days notice to New Hope in advance of proposed work to allow for the harvest of crops.”

The schedule phases out the lease on the 6,000 acres planned for the STA site. There are two leases involved, one approved by the South Florida Management District governing board in 2018, and one signed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2014.

Following the terms of the lease, the SFWMD lease could have been terminated by March 2021. However, without this action by Florida Crystals, the 2014 FDEP lease could have held up the STA project until 2023.

“Florida Crystals has always been committed to ensuring the South Florida Water Management District will have land available as needed for the EAA reservoir project,” Gaston Cantens, vice president for corporate relations at Florida Crystals, said on Oct. 3. “This week, we fulfilled our promise by releasing land early based on the district’s expedited construction schedule. This process has once again proven that farming is compatible with restoration and is the best use of these lands to protect jobs and food supply until they are needed for the project.”

Following information provided by SFWMD about the dates the district would need access to the property to implement the expedited construction schedule for the STA, Florida Crystals offered a schedule for the lease to be phased out:
• Sept. 30, 2019: 2,022 acres;
• Dec. 31, 2020: 1,077 acres;
• March 31, 2021: 3,071 acres.

The lease with New Hope Sugar Co. on the portion of the land owned by the state, signed March 28, 2014 by Katy Fenton, deputy secretary for land and recreation of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, expires in 2046 and includes a three-year termination notice. New Hope Sugar has volunteered to terminate that lease early as well. Without the voluntary early termination, the soonest this land would be available would be May 2023.
For the lease on the property owned by the State of Florida, voluntary early termination proposal includes:
• Sept. 30, 2019: 80 acres;
• Dec. 31, 2020: 278 acres;
• March 31, 2021: 876 acres.

This schedule is also based on the time frame SFWMD provided for early construction of the STA.
In a Sept. 30 letter to FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein, Mr. Tabernilla wrote, “We look forward to working with you to finalize an amendment to State Lease 3433 providing for termination of the lease consistent with the district schedule.”

“Getting the EAA Reservoir Project built and operational is a top priority, and this termination means we can continue to expedite this critical project,” said SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett.

Mr. Bartlett will review the termination letter with the district’s governing board at the Oct. 10 Governing Board meeting. In June and August, the district applied for permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the STA component of the EAA Reservoir Project. Once issued, site preparations for the STA component will begin.

SFWMD hopes to receive the permit from the corps to start building the STA intake canal by early next year. The STA construction is expected to start in June 2021.

The EAA Reservoir Project is a joint Everglades restoration project between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and SFWMD. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will construct the storage reservoir and the district will construct the water-cleansing STA.

The reservoir footprint is about 10,000 acres. The STA will cover about 6,000 acres.

The EAA reservoir, which will be encircled by at 30-foot dike, will store up to 240,000 acre feet of water. The STA will be used to treat water before it is sent south.

Construction of the reservoir itself is still years away. According to information shared at the Sept. 12 SFWMD governing board meeting, even if everything goes smoothly the earliest the reservoir could be complete is 2028. The federal review process for the reservoir began in October 2018 and could be complete by April 2020. After the review process, the design phase starts which the corps projects will take another three years. At the earliest, construction of the reservoir could start in 2023 and finish in 2028.

Under the provisions of the 2018 lease extension, SFWMD is already conducting geotechnical work on the project site. SFWMD will begin site preparations for the STA as soon as the permits for the project are approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Background
In November 2018, the SFWMD board voted to extend a lease on about 16,000 acres of farmland in the EAA for 8 years, with a provision that the lease could be terminated after 20 months with four months notice. Former governing board chair Federico Fernandez said 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.

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. 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.

This map, which was included in the South Florida Water Management District lease discussed at the November 2018 governing board meeting as Exhibit B, shows the area designated for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir. The land owned by SFWMD is in light blue. The 560 acres that SFWMD took back as part of the lease extension are in purple (parcel 1) and bright green (parcel 2). The Trustees of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund (TIITF) lands – 1,251 acres under the control of Florida Department of Environmental Regulation – are shown in light orange. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/SFWMD.

Why lease out the state land?

The site of the future EAA reservoir has been in state ownership for more than 20 years. It was purchased in anticipation of the future need for the land for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). There are many reasons for leasing out the land until the corps is ready to start construction of the reservoir:

• The lease generates about $1.6 million a year ($100 an acre) in lease payments. The per acre lease value was determined as market value by an appraiser chosen by SFWMD.

• Leasing the land for agriculture means it stays on the county tax rolls. When the state takes over the land, the county (in this case Palm Beach County) will lose that annual tax revenue. When the county loses that tax base, other property owners in the county will have to pay more to maintain the level of county services.

• Keeping the land in agriculture is required by state law. Florida Senate Bill 10, which authorizes moving the EAA reservoir up on the CERP Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS) requires the land be kept in agricultural use until the corps or SFWMD is ready to start construction.

• If the land were not leased, SFWMD would be responsible for managing the land, which includes removing any invasive plants. Under the terms of the lease, this responsibility falls on the farmers. In South Florida, land left fallow quickly becomes overrun with invasives such as tropical soda apples, Brazilian peppers, Melaleuca trees and other non-native plants. Agencies involved establishing the Florida Wildlife Corridor discovered that any land allowed to “return to nature” was soon so overrun with invasives that not only were native plants forced out, but the invasives grew so dense that Florida native wildlife was also forced out. If the lease were terminated before construction starts, SFWMD would have the added expense of land management. SFWMD staff are well aware of the effort needed to control invasive plants. They use the millions generated from the leased EAA land to control invasive plants on other state-owned property.

• If the land were not leased, and an endangered species moved in before construction started, the federal government could halt the project. According to former SFWMD Director of Everglades Policy Eva Velez, this has actually happened on other projects, and the federal requirements to move the animals or change the project plans to accommodate the endangered species resulted in delays.

• The lease helps preserve jobs — union jobs — in the sugar mill for as long as possible until the reservoir construction starts. Less cane to harvest will mean less work at the mill. Jobs that pay more than minimum wage are already scarce in rural areas south of the big lake, and the jobs at the mill provide attractive pay and benefits. (A vo-tech program to train future sugar mill workers in welding, electric and machine work references journeyman pay of $25 an hour.)

• Keeping the fields in sugar cane helps clean the water. According to a University of Florida Institute of Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) sugar cane is a “nutrient sink.” Sugar cane is a grass. The water from the lake enters the cane fields higher in phosphorus than water leaves the fields. Every time an acre of sugar cane is harvested, about 20 pounds of phosphorus is removed from the watershed. Runoff from cane fields is also lower in phosphorus than run off from fallow fields, according to the IFAS study.

• Sugar cane planting is rotated with rice. Flooded rice fields act like stormwater treatment areas (STAs), filtering the water from the lake.

• The EAA farmers provide food for America. The rich muck soil, called the “black gold” of the EAA, is highly productive. In addition to the sugar cane grown in the EAA, farmers rotate cane with rice. In the past five years, 31 million pounds of rice was harvested in the 16,000 acre property leased to Florida Cyrstals.

• There’s an additional risk if the state takes the land back before construction starts. If the property were left fallow for five years, it could be declared a wetland by the federal government, and result in additional bureaucratic paperwork for federal permits to start construction of the reservoir … or even of the accompanying Stormwater Treatment Area (STA). (You need a federal permit to turn an area designated as wetland into a project that is also essentially a wetland.)

Multi-year leases typical for farming

Typically leases on land used for farming are for much longer than eight years, according to Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals. Leases with sugar cane growers usually have a three-year termination clause.

Sugar cane is not a “one year” crop. In the EAA, cane may be harvested annually two, three or even four times after the initial planting, depending on the condition of the soil and the type of sugar cane grown.

Some cane fields are planted once and then harvested three times before they are planted with rice and flooded for a year, for a four-year rotation. Fields used for Florida Crystal’s organic sugarcane products are on a three-year cycle with two harvests of cane before the fields are planted with rice and then flooded.

Rice has a growing cycle of 120 days. After the rice germinates, the farmers flood the fields, and they stay flooded for about 80 days. Flooding naturally kills weeds and pests and conserves soil by keeping it out of contact with air. Rice fields function as STAs, removing nutrients from the water. Rice is also a low-input crop; the majority of Florida Crystal’s rice is grown without the use of fertilizer. The fields are kept for a year in rice and then planted again in sugar cane.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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