By: Katrina Elsken, Lake Okeechobee News
SOUTH FLORIDA — Land designated for the future Everglades Agricultural (EAA) reservoir is once again involved in a lawsuit. Florida Wildlife Federation Inc. has filed a legal challenge to the South Florida Water Management Governing Board’s decision to lease most of the land for sugar farming for at least two years.
The SFWMD Governing Board voted Nov. 8 to approve an eight-year lease extension with Florida Crystals on 16,150 acres of state land designated as the future site of the EAA reservoir. After 20 months, SFWMD can terminate the lease with four months’ notice, if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to start construction of the reservoir. The agreement immediately terminated the lease on 560 acres of state land; Within a week, SFWMD had already started site work, bulldozing sugar cane fields. The 560 acres will be used for storage of rocks mined for use in the giant reservoir’s dike, which will be about the same height at the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
The lease agreement can be terminated by the state after 20 months with four months notice. The Corps has estimated design and engineering work will take about three years; SFWMD officials have given the “best case scenario” at a minimum of two years. During those two years, SFWMD will be stockpiling raw materials for the dike and conducting geological testing.
Design and engineering work for the massive reservoir project has not yet started. It will start as soon as the federal government appropriates the funding. The EAA reservoir plan has been approved by Congress and signed by the president, but it still awaits a federal funding allocation.
Time frame disputed
While SFWMD officials maintain the lease changes speed construction of the reservoir because it gave them the opportunity to start mining rocks immediately, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg disputes SFWMD and USACOE estimates on the time frame needed to design the reservoir. Mr. Eikenberg has claimed the reservoir could be designed and built in just four years.
“The people need immediate relief from the conditions causing perennial toxic algae blooms that are killing Floridians and destroying our economy. We need access to this acreage for site preparation and construction — now, not two years from now,” he stated in a Nov. 9 press release.
On Nov. 28, the Florida Wildlife Federation Inc. and Marty Baum filed a lawsuit against the South Florida Water Management District challenging the lease agreement. The lawsuit claims SFWMD violated state law regarding public notice prior to the governing board’s decision about the lease.
“As a result of the District’s decision to issue the New Lease, 16,158 acres of EAA reservoir lands will be used for agriculture for the next two years (and for as long as eight years) rather than for the purpose of construction of a reservoir,” the lawsuit alleges.
Yet another lawsuit
Another lawsuit filed earlier this year by the Florida Wildlife Federation could also impact construction of the EAA reservoir. This lawsuit is over use of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Under Senate Bill 10, the State of Florida plans to take $64 million a year out of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund and use that money for reservoir bonding of $800 million. The federation sued the state over the way the state is using the money, SFWMD General Counsel Brian Accardo explained at the Nov. 8 Governing Board meeting, He said the argument is that when a lot of people voted for the 2014 constitutional amendment to create the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, the money was supposed to be used for acquiring land or improving land, such as restoration projects.
“The environmentalists received a favorable ruling in June,” he said. A circuit court judge in Tallahassee ruled that the Land Acquisition Trust Fund can only be used for acquisition of new land and can only be used for improving land purchased after 2015. “That kills this reservoir, because that land we are going to construct this reservoir on was acquired decades ago. The state has appealed the ruling, and it will go to an appeals court,” he said.
SFWMD responds to lawsuits
On Nov. 29, SFWMD responded to news of the latest lawsuit in a press release.
“A legal challenge filed yesterday by the Florida Wildlife Federation is not at all surprising.
Trying to prevent the District from expediting and completing the EAA Storage Reservoir is consistent with the Florida Wildlife Federation’s prior actions. This is the same group that filed another lawsuit against the state and Sen. Joe Negron – the biggest champion of the EAA Storage Reservoir – seeking to block the Florida Legislature from using Amendment 1 funds to build restoration projects. If ultimately successful in their attempt, the Florida Wildlife Federation’s actions could halt the District’s restoration efforts on approximately 1 million acres of public land acquired using more than $1.5 billion of taxpayer dollars.
“Furthermore, this group celebrated a judge’s ruling restricting the use of Amendment 1 funds on lands long held on the public’s behalf. An attorney, representing the Florida Wildlife Federation, even brazenly told news outlet Politico that ‘a large number of Everglades restoration projects, such as a proposed reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, no longer can be funded with Amendment 1 revenue.’
“The Florida Legislature represents 21 million Floridians. The Florida Wildlife Federation touts a membership of 14,000 people. The Florida Legislature directed that construction of the EAA Storage Reservoir be expedited using Amendment 1 funds and compromised that the land remain agricultural before reservoir construction is ready to proceed. With the District Governing Board approving an agreement to allow crucial geotechnical and rock staging work to begin on the reservoir this month, why would a special interest group attack the very funding stream and legislative compromise needed to expedite the reservoir desired by so many?
“The next step in the legal process is for the District to evaluate the Florida Wildlife Federation’s legal petition,” states the SFWMD press release. “Florida law requires that the District carefully review the legal petition to determine whether it substantially complies with Florida’s Administrative Procedures Act.”
At the Dec. 6 meeting of the Water Resources Analysis Coalition, SFWMD will discuss facts surrounding the EAA reservoir progress and leases. The meeting will be held at SFWMD Headquarters, 3301 Gun Club Road in West Palm Beach, starting at 9 a.m…