By Katherine Lewin, FloridaBulldog.org
Nineteen years ago, the South Florida Water Management District bought 16,158 rural acres south of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County leased for sugar cane farming as part of the massive Everglades restoration project. But one night last month, just hours before the district’s morning meeting, a resolution was quietly added to the governing board’s agenda that would extend the lease to a subsidiary of Florida Crystals, delaying restoration for as long as eight years.
The measure passed the district’s nine-member governing board unanimously, with board member Dan O’Keefe abstaining.
Now, in an effort to reverse the district’s Nov. 8 decision, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Marty Baum, a South Florida conservation activist and founder of Indian Riverkeeper, have filed a petition with the district demanding a formal administrative hearing on the matter.
The lease extension is for land in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), which was designated by the Legislature for use as a reservoir and storm water treatment area. The Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott acted after huge discharges of heavily polluted water from Lake Okeechobee resulted in devastating algae blooms to the St. Lucie estuary on the east coast and the Caloosahatchee estuary on the west coast. The blooms have killed significant amounts of sea life, littering Florida’s beaches with dead and rotting dolphins, manatees and fish, and impacting the health of residents and tourists alike.
The Wildlife Federation, with more than 14,000 members, and Baum allege the district has been “negotiating, in secret, with Sugar Interests… for many months” regarding the lease. But it’s the last-minute addition to the agenda of district’s governing board that sparked the legal challenge.
The “final draft” agenda put out in advance of the meeting said, “Staff will review opportunities and challenges facing the district in 2019.”
But a “final” agenda posted at 9 p.m. the night before the board’s meeting at 9:30 the next morning added a controversial recommendation – that the district amend the existing lease with Florida Crystals’ Okeelanta Corporation and start a new lease with another Florida Crystals subsidiary, New Hope Sugar Company, to continue sugar cane farming on the 16,158 acres of the EAA. The resolution also amended the existing lease to carve out 560 acres to be used for “critical site work” to “expedite” the project, according to a statement from the water management district.
Under Florida law, the district should have published a newspaper notice of its intention to extend and modify the lease in Palm Beach County once a week for three successive weeks. No such notice was ever published, according to the petition.
However, at the governing board meeting, the district’s general counsel said the district was exempt from any notice requirements when it buys land and then leases it back to the original owner.
Board asked not to act
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, at the meeting on behalf of himself and Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis, asked the board to not act because there was not enough time for review. After a short discussion period, the board moved forward anyway.
The eight-year lease commits the EAA lands to agricultural use for a minimum of two years and a maximum of eight years starting April 1, 2019. “After the first 20 months, the district may terminate any acreage with 4-months’ notice, on a field by field basis, once the governing board and the district execute a construction contract for the project.”
The Legislature allowed for continued sugar cane farming on the land until it becomes “incompatible” with turning the area into a reservoir, according to the petition. The Legislature also allowed the sugar companies to be compensated for unharvested crops after termination of the lease.
Ultimately, the EAA is meant to restore the connection to the Everglades and will hold 240,000 acre-feet of water.
In response to the petition, the water management district released a statement saying the Wildlife Federation is attempting to delay the project. The district started clearing sugar cane from the 560-acre carve-out on Nov. 14.
“Trying to prevent the District from expediting and completing the EAA Storage Reservoir is consistent with the Florida Wildlife Federation’s prior actions,” the statement reads. “This is the same group that filed another lawsuit against the state and Sen. Joe Negron – the biggest champion of the EAA Storage Reservoir – seeking to block the Florida Legislature from using Amendment 1 funds to build restoration projects. If ultimately successful in their attempt, the Florida Wildlife Federation’s actions could halt the District’s restoration efforts on approximately 1 million acres of public land acquired using more than $1.5 billion of taxpayer dollars.”
The district has 10 days to review the petition and can either send it back for changes or forward it to the Division of Administrative Hearings in Tallahassee for trial, likely in six months.
Meanwhile, initial work in the carve-out area has begun. At a public forum on water resources on Thursday, district Chief Engineer John Mitnik said that in the last three weeks two sugarcane fields in the 560 acres have been cleared and they are now clearing a third.
Mitnik said that on Monday three geotechnical drill rigs started analyzing the subsurface conditions, as well as digging pits to test the trenches, to support design of the EAA Reservoir. He added that the district also has installed pumps on the south end of the reservoir to keep the water down as they collect stockpiled rocks and move them over to the cleared acreage.
Eva Vélez, Division Director of Everglades Policy & Coordination, said in the best case scenario the design of the reservoir will take two to three years. She said that state law prohibited the district from using the reservoir area for the interim storage of water.