Florida will buy out a sugar grower’s lease for $2.4 million to save up to $16 million in accelerating site preparation for a $1.6 billion Everglades reservoir project by about 15 months.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet agreed Tuesday to pay $1,940 an acre to New Hope Sugar Co., a subsidiary of Florida Crystals, to terminate a 1,234-acre lease of state-owned land in December.
“This is clearing the way now to be able to do this reservoir,” DeSantis told reporters after the meeting. “If we had not done that, then it would have been delayed and delayed. It’s going to be hard enough to get the [U.S.] Army Corps on this [project], that delays on our part would have been bad.”
The land will be part of the 240,000-acre-feet Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir, which will curb and filter Lake Okeechobee discharges to prevent the spread of toxic green and blue algae into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and to restore the natural “sheet flow” of the Everglades into Florida Bay.
The South Florida Water Management District (SoftMud) estimates the EAA reservoir could reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges by 65 percent.
The EAA reservoir is among a suite of Everglades restoration projects approved by state lawmakers in 2017, including three additional above-ground reservoirs, that are either under construction or in the planning stages.
The federal America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 requires the EAA reservoir's $1.6 billion cost be split between the state and federal government over 10 years.
The state wants to accelerate the timeline for the project from 10-year horizons to within seven years. DeSantis has proposed a four-year, $2.5 billion Everglades restoration plan that includes the EAA reservoir among other water-quality environmental projects.
DeSantis requested $625 million for the program in his fiscal 2020 budget and received $682 million. He has also asked for $625 million in his fiscal 2021 budget request.
The state’s plan is to get the federal government to provide at least $200 million a year in match-funding until it is completed; the faster the money comes from Washington, the sooner work on the reservoir in southwest Palm Beach County begins.
But after receiving $200 million in fiscal federal funding, President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget request seeks only $63 million for Everglades restoration.
In a March visit to Lake Okeechobee’s Canal Point, Trump seemed amenable to boosting the funding, a high priority lobby for DeSantis and Florida’s Congressional delegation, but there has been no movement since.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Noah Valenstein told the Cabinet Tuesday that buying out leases within the 6,000-acre area still under cultivation would save the state about $16 million in construction costs by beginning a stormwater component of the project earlier than anticipated.
“Every year that there is a delay in construction projects, what we’ve been seeing is a 3 percent increase in costs,” Valenstein said, noting the money to pay Florida Crystals will come from $30 million set aside in the Everglades Trust Fund in 2017.
Valenstein said the first of three phases of the stormwater management component within the reservoir project could begin in late fall if the project is approved by the U.S. Army Corps.
Florida Crystals sent a Sept. 30 letter to DeSantis, SoftMud and the DEP requesting to immediately terminate a 2,000 of the 6,170 acres New Hope Sugar has under lease within the proposed 10,100-acre reservoir’s 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area (STA).
The letter asks to end leases on another 1,000 acres in the STA in December 2020 and 3,000 acres in March 2021. The leases would have expired in April 2021.
On Oct. 3, Florida Crystals Vice President and General Counsel Armando Tabernilla said the company intends to “continue to farm these fields on a field-by-field basis until its operations are incompatible” with the reservoir project.