SFWMD to start work on feeder canal from Lake Okeechobee to EAA reservoir site

WEST PALM BEACH — The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board on Wednesday announced plans to expedite construction of the canal which will feed water from the lake to the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir.

The red lines indicate the area where the canal will be dug to provide water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir and stormwater treatment area. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/SFWMD.

While some Florida politicians celebrated a move they say will move up the EAA reservoir project time line up by 18 months, this change will not affect the construction of the EAA reservoir itself. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the EAA reservoir construction. The corps is in the process of going through the design, planning and federal permitting required before construction contracts can be bid. At the April 11 SFWMD governing board meeting, Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained that the federal government cannot act on issuing the permit until the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis is done, making sure it is in the federal interest and meets environmental compliance for the action. A NEPA analysis includes review of how the project would affect things such as tribal lands and endangered species. Each federal agency has to sign off on the NEPA analysis if it affects their area. Each of these has to conduct hearings for public comment. The corps has to receive and address the comments. The corps has projected it will take two to three years to design the EAA reservoir and four to five years to build it.

On June 4, SFWMD applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Florida Department of Environmental Protection for permits to allow the district to clear a 700-foot-wide strip of land, encompassing about 690 acres on the site of the proposed EAA Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) Project.

This work will prepare the land to build a canal and perimeter levee for the project’s stormwater treatment area. The canal will feed water diverted from Lake Okeechobee through existing canals into the 240,000 acre-foot reservoir and stormwater treatment area. The proposed A-2 Stormwater Treatment Area will treat and cleanse water before it is sent to the Southern Everglades.

The 690 acres needed is currently leased by a subsidiary of the Florida Crystals Corporation. In letters written to SFWMD, Florida Crystals committed to ensuring the district has access to leased land to expedite the restoration work. According to a SFWMD spokesperson, the district expects to receive the permits by October and complete the preparation work for the levee and canal by the end of the year, allowing crews to start excavating the intake canal next year.

Preliminary design work has already started. The land clearing of the additional 690 acres could start in October. This work is in addition to the land clearing of the 560 acres staging area within the project footprint which began in November 2018.

In November 2018, the SFWMD governing board signed a lease extension with Florida Crystals, which made it possible to take back the 560 acres of leased public land immediately. Had they not renegotiated the lease, that work could not have started until March 2019. The 8-year lease can be terminated on a field-by-field basis after 20 months, with four months notice. Under the terms of this lease, SFWMD could terminate the lease on parts of the land they are ready to use starting in December 2020. However, in an April 10, 2019 letter to the South Florida Water Management District, Alfonso Fanjul and K. Pepe Fanjul offered to transition the lease early “as needed by the SFWMD for construction of the EAA reservoir project.”

Under the timeline announced Wednesday, SFWMD will need 690 acres of the 16,158 acres of SFWMD land currently leased by Florida Crystals about 14 months sooner than the lease allows.

“Florida Crystals has been a partner in Everglades restoration for more than two decades,” said Gaston Cantens, Vice President of Florida Crystals. “We are proud of the success that has been achieved in the southern Everglades thanks to the long-standing collaboration between the State of Florida, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and our Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) farming community. We are committed to working closely with the SFWMD to help facilitate construction of the EAA reservoir like we have done with other restoration projects.”

“This is great. We are moving forward on this reservoir project at full speed under the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis because it is a crucial component of the overall plan to restoring America’s Everglades,” said SFWMD Executive Director Drew Bartlett. “The permit applications are the latest major milestone that will get this project built and its benefits realized in the foreseeable future.”

“The residents of South Florida need and deserve the environmental benefits of this project. We are here to deliver this project as soon as possible,” Mr. Bartlett added. “Every component of the EAA Reservoir Project is being expedited to restore and protect our natural water resources, and today’s announcement is good news for Floridians.”

Once the levee, canal and STA are complete, SFWMD can use the STA to cleanse southbound water even before the reservoir itself is completed, according to the SFWMD press release.

A timeline has not been released for the construction of the STA. While the lease with a Florida Crystal’s subsidiary on the 16,158 acre property controlled by SFWMD can be terminated in December 2020, two smaller parcels within the footprint of the planned STA are controlled by Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The 30-year lease on those two parcels has a 3-year termination clause. To date, no action has been taken by FDEP to terminate that lease.

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