WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s 2022 budget for the Corps of Engineers, released on May 28, contains $350 million for South Florida ecosystem restoration, a $100 million increase over the 2021 federal budget.
This will fund all work on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) that the corps will be capable of accomplishing in that funding period, according to Maj. Gen. William H. “Butch” Graham, USACE Deputy Commanding General for Civil and Emergency Operations.
Work on the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir is on track, according to Col. Andrew Kelly, Commander of the USACE Jacksonville District. The corps plans to let the first contracts for the EAA reservoir project later this year The first contracts will be for work on canals to move water to and from the reservoir. This preliminary work can start while the reservoir design is still in the works.
Kelly said the EAA reservoir project is still in the design phase and there have been no delays.
SFWMD has already started work on the EAA stormwater treatment area (STA). The corps will build the 10,000-acre storage reservoir, which is expected to be complete in 2028 (with three years for engineering and design and five years of construction).
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.
In 2004, under Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration, a plan was advanced to speed up some aspects of the Everglades Restoration. The EAA reservoir was one of the eight projects chosen.
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.