OKEECHOBEE — The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board had nothing but praise for Florida Crystals at its Oct. 10 meeting.
Executive Director Drew Bartlett said when he came on board with the SFWMD, the governing board challenged him to expedite work on the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir and stormwater treatment area (STA).
Most of area designated for the reservoir and STA is SFWMD land which had been leased to Florida Crystals under a November 2018 lease. A portion of the area in the footprint of the STA is state land that was leased to Florida Crystals under a 2014 lease by Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“The lease was an obstacle,” he said. “Florida Crystals turned out to not be an obstacle.”
Mr. Bartlett said when Gov. Ron DeSantis set the goal of expediting the EAA reservoir and STA, Florida Crystals reached out to the SFWMD to help.
“The commitment from Florida Crystals came in April,” he said. “They committed to work with us.”
He said John Mitnik, SFWMD chief engineer, came up with the plan to expedite the STA, which SFWMD will build. (The reservoir will be a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer project.)
“We provided that to Crystals and they didn’t flinch,” said Mr. Bartlett.
“Crystals sent us a letter giving us the fields that we need on our construction schedule,” he said.
“There are state lands in the middle of the STA. They didn’t flinch. They said we can work with that,” he said. Florida Crystals also sent a letter to FDEP proposing to terminate the lease with FDEP early. Mr. Bartlett said the field-by-field termination schedule follows the project design provided by SFWMD to Florida Crystals.
“I want to say that I think it is magnanimous and it has been a huge way forward for us in terms of the lease termination,” said governing board member Scott Wagner.
“Florida Crystals should be thanked for doing what they did.
“We were told early on Florida Crystals would move out of the way when we needed it,” said Mr. Wagner. “The company said ‘just trust us,’” he continued. “Then they proved SFWMD could trust the company.
“Florida Crystals should be thanked for living up to its word,” he said. “This has really cleared the way for a true expedited construction schedule. That is a huge deal as far as I am concerned.”
Governing board member Carlos Martinez said the backlash over the former SFWMD governing board vote in November 2018 to lease the 16,000 acres of SFWMD land to Florida Crystals affected a lot of people. He said the controversy over that vote overshadowed a lot of the good work that had been done by the governing board. He noted the backlash also “affected a lot of good people who worked for SFWMD. Some of them lost their jobs.
“I do want to thank Florida Crystals,” he said.
“Back in April, we received a letter from them that said, ‘if you want out, we’ll let you out.’
“They were called on that letter, and they were true to their word.”
The only obstacle now in the way of construction of the STA is the federal permit. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires federal agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), to consider the potential environmental impacts of their proposed actions and any reasonable alternatives before undertaking a major federal action.
Lt. Col. Todd Polk, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said with no delays, the NEPA permit should be complete in May 2020.
The EAA reservoir will follow the corps timeline. After the federal approvals are in place, the corps hopes to begin building the reservoir after three years of design. That would mean starting construction in 2023 and finishing around 2028. (Neither of the Florida Crystals leases would have delayed the corps timeline.)
While the board was full of praise for Florida Crystals, they expressed concerns about a letter they received from an attorney for U.S. Sugar, concerning water allocations.
U.S. Sugar attorney Elizabeth Ross said U.S. Sugar supports the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). She said the letter supports the EAA reservoir and STA projects but asks reasonable questions about water supply.
“These are questions that technical analysis can provide answers to,” said Ms. Ross.
“I don’t think anybody is really against moving the STA forward. I think the concerns get back to this conversation about water supply. I think the conversation is heated right now because of the conversation about lake level,” said Nyla Pipes of One Florida Foundation. She said the original goal of the EAA reservoir project is to keep the Everglades, including the EAA, hydrated.
“The bottom line is, whether we are growing sugar or vegetables or sawgrass, we have to keep those areas hydrated during the dry season,” she said. If it dries out, the muck soil will oxidize.
“Those lands will dry out and ‘poof’ away. We will lose our soil,” she said.
“Go back to CERP. Look at what the EAA reservoir efforts were supposed to have done from the beginning,” she sad.
“We want all of the stakeholders to have the water they need,” said governing board member Cheryl Meads. “No one is saying we don’t want agriculture to have the water they need. We want everyone to have the water they need.”
Following information provided by SFWMD about the dates the district would need access to the property to implement the expedited construction schedule for the STA, Florida Crystals offered a schedule for the SFWMD lease to be phased out:
• Sept. 30, 2019: 2,022 acres;
• Dec. 31, 2020: 1,077 acres;
• March 31, 2021: 3,071 acres.
Without this change, the earliest the lease could have been terminated was March 2021.
For the lease on the property owned by the State of Florida, voluntary early termination proposal includes:
• Sept. 30, 2019: 80 acres;
• Dec. 31, 2020: 278 acres;
• March 31, 2021: 876 acres.
Without this change, the earliest the lease could have been terminated was May 2023.