THE EVERGLADES – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was at Stormwater Treatment (STA) Area 1, south of Lake Okeechobee, for an Earth Day event on April 22 celebrating the progress of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir and STA.
DeSantis noted the South Florida Water Management District approved the agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to go forward with the EAA reservoir STA earlier in the day.
He said the economy is performing better than expected and there will be sustainable financial support for the state’s share of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).
The EAA reservoir project, which is part of CERP, includes two major features, he said: A reservoir will hold excess water from Lake Okeechobee. The STA will treat the water to remove excess nutrients. The STA is already under construction by the SFWMD. The 10,500-acre reservoir, which will be built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will hold 240,000 acre-feet of water.
DeSantis said the project will reduce the need for harmful freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries. He said the EAA reservoir is essential to send more clean water south to the Everglades.
“The southern reservoir is the essential component to stop the discharges,” said Joe Negron who championed Senate Bill 10, which passed into law in 2017 under Gov. Rick Scott. SB10 expedited the schedule for the EAA reservoir and provided funding for the state’s 50% share of the project cost.
“The Everglades is going to be given new life,” said Chauncey Goss, SFWMD governing board chair.
Lt. Col. Todd Polk of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District said the corps is “all in and fully committed” to working with the State of Florida on the EAA reservoir project.
History of the EAA reservoir
The EAA reservoir is one of the original projects outlined in CERP.
CERP was authorized by Congress in 2000, including 68 projects to “restore, preserve, and protect the south Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.” At a cost of more than $10.5 billion and with a 35-year time line, CERP is the largest hydrological restoration project ever undertaken in the United States.
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. 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.
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, work was suspended after a group of environmentalists filed a lawsuit. By the time the lawsuit was dropped, Gov. Charlie Crist was in office, and he announced his own River of Grass plan for the Everglades, a proposal to buy the holdings of U.S. Sugar.
The state could not fund both the River of Grass plan and the EAA reservoir, so work on the reservoir project stopped. Some of the property was used for a flow equalization basin (FEB). The remainder, still in state ownership, was leased for farming.
The River of Grass plan was later abandoned.
The EAA reservoir project stayed on the CERP list and was scheduled for 2021.
In 2016, Florida Senate President Joe Negron put the idea to expedite the EAA reservoir back on the table, arguing that it would help reduce the need for harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries in years with high rainfall.
Senate Bill 10 (SB10) signed in May 2017, gave SFWMD the task of designing the reservoir project, using land already in state ownership and/or EAA land acquired from willing sellers. SB-10 gave the SFWMD a deadline of Jan. 9, 2018 to present a plan to the legislature to accomplish that goal.
The EAA reservoir plan approved in SB10 had widespread support not only from environmental groups but also from the leaders of towns south of Lake Okeechobee and from the agri-business community.
On Jan. 9, 2018 the SFWMD provided five alternatives to meet the requirements outlined in SB-10. The option chosen is sited on former sugar farm land that was purchased for the original EAA reservoir plan — the one that was derailed in 2007. It includes a 240,000 acre-foot reservoir, with a footprint of approximately 10,100 acres and a depth of approximately 23 feet and a stormwater treatment area of approximately 6,500 acres.
The EAA reservoir is part of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which itself is part of CERP. Congress approved CEPP in 2016. Without the other CEPP projects, the EAA reservoir would be static storage. CEPP provides increased flow from Lake Okeechobee to the EAA reservoir area and increased flow from the reservoir area to the Everglades and to Florida Bay.
Like all CERP projects, the EAA reservoir calls for a 50-50 funding split between the State of Florida and the federal government. SB10 identified the state funding. The federal half of the funding depends on Congressional appropriations.
When the state purchases land for a future project, it is common practice to lease the land back to the original owner until the property is needed for the project. That keeps the land on the tax rolls, keeps the land in productive use, and also means the property owner will continue to take care of the property. In South Florida, land that is not managed is often quickly overrun with non-native invasive vegetation. (Even worse, if an endangered species moves in, it can delay or even halt a project.)
On Nov. 8, 2018 the SFWMD Governing Board approved an eight-year lease renewal with Florida Crystals on 16,150 acres of state land in the footprint of the future site of the EAA reservoir, with an option to terminate the lease after 20 months, with four months’ notice. Leasing the land for farming until it was needed for construction brought in about $1 million a year. The agreement also terminated the lease on 560 acres of state land early, so that SFWMD could start some site work before the design work for the reservoir even began.
On Nov. 14, 2018, the South Florida Water Management District began work on the EAA project, as bulldozers began clearing 560 acres of sugarcane in the area between the reservoir and STA sites. This site was used to stockpile rocks in preparation for the construction project.
In April 2019, Florida Crystals sent a letter to the new SFWMD governing board, volunteering to terminate leases on state-owned land early if the SFWMD was ready to start construction of the EAA reservoir and STA projects.
A portion of the area in the footprint of the EAA STA was state land that was leased to Florida Crystals under a 2014 lease by Florida Department of Environmental Protection. While that 30-year lease was originally considered a potential obstacle to the STA project, Florida Crystals committed to working with SFWMD to make sure there were no delays. In October. 2019, Florida Crystals sent a letter to FDEP offering to terminate that lease with FDEP early, using a field-by-field termination schedule that follows the project design provided by SFWMD.
In November 2020, the SFWMD began work on the EAA STA.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to let the first contract on the reservoir go by the end of 2021. Reservoir construction is expected to take about 5 years.