SFWMD extends sugar lease
As votes continue to be tallied in the intensely close Florida Senate race, Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, has called for the resignation of the South Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board and executive director, in a letter to Gov. Rick Scott Thursday afternoon.
The letter stems from the SFWMD’s vote to extend the land lease with New Hope Sugar Company, a subsidiary of Florida Crystals, until 2027 on land authorized to be used for the EAA Southern Storage Reservoir, said The Everglades Foundation officials.
Scott, who remained in the lead as voter tallies continued Thursday, is looking to unseat incumbent Bill Nelson, a Democrat.
The letter states, in part, “On behalf of The Everglades Foundation, I am writing to strongly protest the illegal, shameful and undemocratic action this morning by your appointees at the South Florida Water Management District to extend leases now scheduled to expire for acreage owned by the State of Florida that has been designated for construction of the Everglades reservoir.
“In a breathtaking effort to thwart the public will, less than 48 hours after a statewide election during which you repeatedly and personally assured the people of Florida of your commitment to protecting Florida’s environment, it appears that your appointees at SFWMD have been engaged in secret negotiations with Florida Crystals to extend these leases for the growing of sugar cane through the year 2027, a fact we just learned yesterday through a public records request.
“Your appointees ignored the urgent request of Governor-elect Ron DeSantis and U.S. Representative Brian Mast (R-Stuart) to delay any action until the Governor-elect could be briefed on the matter. Your office was aware of our concerns about this matter but did nothing to intervene. Considering this, I must conclude that your administration is complicit in this illegal maneuver that benefits a single sugar company over the interests of the people of Florida, who own the land in question.
“If the administration is not, I ask that you publicly denounce the action taken today by SFWMD’s Governing Board and demand the resignations of the entire Governing Board and Executive Director Ernie Marks.”
SFWMD says it is following protocol.
“The South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) Governing Board directed staff today to move ahead and expedite the proposed Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir project,” a late afternoon release from the agency states. “A staff presentation identified that the District will solicit contractors to begin work on the reservoir project site south of Lake Okeechobee. The Governing Board also voted to fulfill a requirement of state law by coming to terms on an expiring lease on land slated for the reservoir, ensuring the project’s footprint will be available for construction upon completion of design.”
“This Governing Board is in agreement that a year like 2018 was a travesty for South Florida waterways. Directing staff to take the next steps to prepare the project site puts us one step closer to providing relief for the northern estuaries and sending additional clean water to the Everglades once federal funding is secured,” said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Federico Fernandez in the statement. “I have read comments in the press that all parties would like to see work begin on the EAA Reservoir in March 2019. With this vote, our Board is saying why wait until then? Let’s begin the process now.”
The release continued: “The Governing Board directed staff to expedite this part of the process and utilize the 560 acres by restructuring a lease on land that will be utilized for the reservoir. According to Florida law, if there is an expiring lease on land owned or controlled by the state or SFWMD which has been identified as being necessary for the reservoir project, entities ‘shall execute, renegotiate, extend, or amend agreements, including reasonable notice and termination provisions, so that the land does not sit fallow and provides the maximum public benefit.’ The bill further states, ‘Any such agreements shall provide that agricultural operators shall be permitted to continue to farm on a field-by-field basis until such time as the agricultural operations are incompatible with site preparation, on-site investigation, or construction for an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project.’
“To fulfill this requirement of state law, the Governing Board negotiated an eight-year lease on about 16,500 acres currently being leased within the project’s footprint. This new agreement allows the District to terminate the lease on any part of land to begin quarrying efforts needed to construct the project’s levees.”
Gov. Rick Scott’s office referred comment to the SFWMD governing board.
“The Governor has made historic Everglades restoration investments throughout his term,” said Gov. Rick Scott’s Deputy Communications Director, Mara Gambineri, in an email. “In fact, this project wouldn’t exist without the Governor signing it into law and personally advocating for its successful authorization in Washington. The South Florida Water Management District is an independent body, any questions on their actions should be directed to them.”
Sen. Bill Nelson could not be immediately reached for comment.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a statement issued by Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
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