PALM BEACH COUNTY — 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 has generated 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 $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
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.