Land slated for EAA reservoir leased for farming

OKEECHOBEE — The South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) Governing Board voted Nov. 8 to approve an eight-year lease with Florida Crystals on 16,150 acres of state land in the footprint of the future site of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir. After 20 months, SFWMD can terminate the lease with four months’ notice, if SFWMD is ready to start construction of the reservoir.

The EAA Reservoir and stormwater treatment area will be built
on the A-2 parcel, which was already in state ownership, and
490 acres of land just west of the A-2 parcel purchased in April
2018 from Seventh Day Adventist Church Memorial Fund.
Most of the land is currently leased for farming. Site work will
start this week to begin storing rock on 590 acres so that construction
materials will be ready when design and engineering
work is complete.

The plan will immediately terminate the lease on 560 acres of state land, so that SFWMD can start some site work before the design for the reservoir is complete — perhaps even before design work starts.

Although SFWMD officials maintain this plan will expedite construction of the EAA reservoir while following the dictates of the 2016 Florida Senate Bill 10, the agreement immediately drew criticism from the Everglades Foundation, Congressman Brian Mast and Florida Audubon.

“This Governing Board is in agreement that a year like 2018 was a travesty for South Florida waterways. Directing staff to take the next steps to prepare the project site puts us one step closer to providing relief for the northern estuaries and sending additional clean water to the Everglades once federal funding is secured,” said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Federico Fernandez. “I have read comments in the press that all parties would like to see work begin on the EAA Reservoir in March 2019. With this vote, our board is saying why wait until then? Let’s begin the process now.”

The Florida Legislature authorized the reservoir through the passage of Senate Bill 10 as a partnership with the federal government. The Florida Legislature has committed to funding the state’s half of the estimated $1.6 billion cost. The U.S. Congress authorized the project last month, but Florida is still waiting for the federal government to commit to funding its share of the project cost.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated engineering and design work will take about three years, and construction will take another four years. The corps won’t start work until the federal share of the project budget is appropriated.

The state already owns the land it plans to use for the reservoir. Most of it was purchased two decades ago. A small piece of property adjacent to state property was acquired within the past year. Most of the land has been leased for farming, in accordance with state law.

Leasing the land to farmers keeps the land on the tax rolls until the state is ready to use it. The farmers also manage the land, which would quickly be overrun with invasive plants if left fallow.

At the Nov. 8 SFWMD Governing Board meeting at the University of Miami, Brian Accardo, SFWMD general counsel, explained that in regard to leases that will expire during fiscal year 2018-19, Florida law requires “the district shall execute, renegotiate, extend or amend agreements, including reasonable notice and termination provisions, so that the land does not sit fallow and provides maximum public benefit. Any such agreements shall provide that agricultural operators shall be permitted to continue to farm on a field-by-field basis until such time as the agricultural operations are incompatible with site preparation, on-site investigation or construction for an Everglades Agricultural Areas reservoir project, as reasonably determined by the lessor.

He said new leases will reflect a transition from use of the land for agriculture to use for water storage.

“This reflects a policy decision by the legislature,” he said.

“It’s actually good practice to keep the ag operations on there until we are ready to construct,” he explained. He said ceasing agriculture use and allowing the land to go back to its natural state could impede the eventual construction of the reservoir.

Mr. Accardo said taking it down on a field-by-field basis saves the state the cost of managing the land until they are ready to turn dirt.

SFWMD staff proposes to do site work on a parallel path with the USACE design, he explained.

In the next 90 days, the corps has been directed to go back and address questions dealing with dam safety and water quality cost share.

The state is authorized to bond up to $800 million for this project.

He said they will use 560 acres to store rock and fill so it will be ready when construction begins.

“We are proposing to immediately work within our existing contracting mechanism to start moving rock,” he said. SFWMD will “immediately take down 560 acres of the existing leases right now for site work.”

He said they hope design work can start early in 2019, but the corps can’t start the design work until the project receives a federal appropriation.

“We are proposing eight-year leases on approximately 16,150 acres of state-owned land.

The land will be fully available for unrestricted construction after 20 months, with a four-month notice to vacate upon construction award.

“Eight years is not random. Eight years is what your staff thinks is an optimistic but reasonable construction schedule,” he said. “If our wildest dreams are realized, and we can start constructing this reservoir, with the full design and a full federal partner … within two years we can get out of the entire lease.

“The reason why we picked 20 months is that with your most optimistic and reasonable path to design, it’s going to take two years to design this project,” he said.

“While this lease is in effect, we will receive about $1 million in annual revenue,” said Mr. Accardo. That money could be used for control of exotic vegetation in the wildlife refuge.

Celeste De Palma of Audubon Florida said she was disappointed with the way the item was posted to the SFWMD agenda the night before the meeting.

“This is a badly needed project,” she said. She said the lease limits the way the district can move water around within the system.

“The leases you have on this land do not expire until March 2019,” she said. “What is the rush?”

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-18th District, asked the SFWMD to postpone the vote on the lease.

He said he attended the meeting as a member of Congress and as a representative of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis.

“These leases do not end until March. The governor-elect as well as federal legislators would like to be briefed and be able to know we are not putting in place additional hurdles to bringing this reservoir to fruition. We want to know that any new land leases … are not something that are going to be impossible to get out of,” said Congressman Mast.

Mike Collins, of the Water Resources Analysis Coalition, said Senate Bill 10 is very specific: The law states SFWMD is to keep agriculture on the land as long as possible until work on the EAA reservoir starts. “You are going to lose at least a year if you don’t obey the legislature,” he said.

Mr. Collins said the people who are now trying to delay the leases are the same people who 10 years ago tried to block the original construction of the EAA reservoir.

(Construction of the EAA reservoir initially started as part of Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2004 Acceler-8 plan. Construction of the reservoir halted in 2007 after environmentalist groups filed a lawsuit. That reservoir plan was abandoned after then-Gov. Charlie Crist took office and promoted his own ‘River of Grass’ plan.)

“We were half-finished with the reservoir. We would have had it done by 2010,” said Mr. Collins.

“I would urge you in the name of getting this project down the road as soon as possible that you obey the legislature,” he said. “Your staff is ready to start moving rock in a month.

“We make our living in agriculture. I encourage you to follow what the Florida Legislature directed in Senate Bill 10,” said Tammy Jackson-Moore of Guardians of the Glades. “It is discouraging that there are some who just want to ignore Senate Bill 10.”

Mr. Accardo said delaying approval of the changes to the leases would delay the EAA reservoir project. The new lease makes it possible to start using the 560 acres immediately for mining and storing rock for the reservoir. If they wait until spring (and the looming wet season) to vote on the lease, they won’t be able to do that, he said.

The governing board also directed staff to move forward with geotechnical work on the site. This is necessary for finalizing the project design by drilling, soil sampling and testing the foundation materials around the proposed reservoir’s 17.6-mile perimeter.

Eva Velez, SFWMD’s director of Everglades policy and coordination, said removing agriculture before they are ready to build the reservoir would delay the project because invasive plants would quickly take over if the land is not actively managed.

She said with the C-43 reservoir project, because the land sat fallow, threatened and endangered species moved in, “that were not there inside of the project in the beginning.”

This caused delays and additional cost.

“With no prior notice, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) yesterday walled off the site of the intended Everglades Reservoir for the benefit of Florida Crystals,” stated Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg on Nov. 9. “Far from allowing ‘immediate reservoir site work to proceed,’ Mr. 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. The people need immediate relief from the conditions causing perennial toxic algae blooms that are killing Floridians and destroying our economy. We need access to this acreage for site preparation and construction — now, not two years from now.”

“This lease agreement ensures the EAA reservoir is implemented as the Legislature instructed under Senate Bill 10 by keeping farmland in agricultural production until the project is ready for construction,” said Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals Corp. “Keeping the land in farming not only protects Florida’s rural jobs and food supply but also continues to generate tax revenue for Palm Beach County and the Everglades Trust Fund. Losing more than 16,700 acres of farmland will be challenging, because it supplies 10 percent of the sugarcane to our mill, but we have always been good partners with the state in helping implement restoration projects, and we are committed to continuing to do so.

Florida Crystals has a successful track record managing land and water for the district under similar agreements, including for the current STA-1W expansion, until they are ready to transition to restoration projects.”

About the EAA Storage Reservoir

The EAA reservoir plans call for a 10,100-acre reservoir that will store water up to 23 feet deep along with a 6,500-acre storm water treatment area. According to SFWMD, together with other authorized projects, the EAA Storage Reservoir will send an annual average of approximately 370,000 additional acre-feet of clean water south to the Everglades that will be protected by rule or reservation to benefit the natural system. It will also reduce the number of damaging discharge events from Lake Okeechobee to the northern estuaries by 63 percent when used in conjunction with authorized projects.

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

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