Palm Beach Post by Kimberly Miller
December 6, 2018
Water managers Thursday defended the decision that allows sugarcane farming to continue on land slated for a reservoir amid criticism that late public notice given for a November vote was underhanded and “stinky.”
Copies of internal emails obtained through a public records request include mid-October discussions about the eight-year lease to Florida Crystals, a draft agenda that lists the lease as an item intended for a vote and a draft press release announcing the Nov. 8 decision.
But the lease wasn’t specifically included in the final agenda until about 9 p.m. the night before the meeting, leaving some environmental groups condemning the last-minute posting and inability of the public to review the terms.
The lease, which was set to expire in March, allows Florida Crystals to continue farming on about 16,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee while planning for a reservoir to hold lake overflow continues. The district can cancel the lease after two years, which is the earliest officials believe they could begin construction after a lengthy permitting and contracting process. Florida Crystals will pay about $1 million per year to rent the land, according to the district.
“A lot of the pushback you are getting is in how it was done,” said Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center during a Thursday meeting of the Water Resources Analysis Coalition. “You got caught trying to hide the ball.”
Jensen Beach resident Jo Neeson was more colorful in her admonishment.
“It was a very stinky thing you did,” said Neeson, who is on the board of directors for the Indian Riverkeeper group.
District spokesman Randy Smith said the lease negotiations were ongoing for months and a discussion was expected at the November governing board meeting, but an agreement wasn’t reached until the evening before. The district kept about 560 acres out of the lease so it could start moving rock that will be used to build the reservoir. That work began just four days after the vote.
“These things are negotiated well into the night because it isn’t easy stuff and people don’t trust government and they shouldn’t,” said Michael Collins, a coalition member and a former chairman of district’s governing board in defense of the lease.
A state law approved in 2017 requires the construction of the above-ground reservoir to reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, which have contributed to blue-green algae outbreaks. Legislation that says how money for the reservoir should be spent requires the land remain farmland until construction begins on the reservoir.
Eva Velez, Everglades policy and coordination division director for the district, said the November vote couldn’t be delayed because work needed to be done during the dry season before winter El Niño rains begin. There is an 80 percent chance a winter El Niño will materialize, which can mean wetter and cooler weather for South Florida.
“The reason for the timing is all about taking advantage of the dry season,” Velez said.