The South Florida Water Management District's (SFWMD) Water Resources Analysis Coalition (WRAC) didn't shy away from controversy Thursday -- in fact, members steered headlong into it, discussing steps the District board took involving the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Storage Reservoir.
The fact-finding panel, which acts as a forum to facilitate greater participation in water resources issues in South Florida, addressed what they called misinformation spread by special interest groups about the storage project and a lease on land for the project that was required by state law.
"The mission of this coalition is simply to get down to the basic facts of South Florida's most pressing water resource issues and bring them to light through public participation," said SFWMD Governing Board Member and WRAC Facilitator Brandon Tucker. "Discussions like the one we had today are important to provide stakeholders and interested parties with answers to their questions and the correct facts about this Board's commitment to expediting the EAA project while fulfilling state law."
The lease discussed at the WRAC forum was approved by the SFWMD Governing Board on Nov. 8. The 16,000-acre lease meets the letter and intent of state law while also liberating 560 acres. The District is using these acres to expedite project construction by clearing areas for staging of equipment and rock on the site to build the levees that will go around the reservoir, as well as initiating site-wide underground investigations to support design activities.
The discussion featured robust dialogue and comments from invited attendees representing the public and groups on all sides of the issues surrounding Everglades restoration. A full video of the meeting is available on this page.
Newton Cook, representing United Waterfowlers of Florida, said trying to store water on the property when it would be needed for reservoir construction in two years was a waste of taxpayer money. He accused a number of groups that are voicing opposition to the lease of constantly trying to kill the reservoir project and said their objections are endangering the efforts to get federal funding for this project.
"It is incredibly stupid, and I hate to use that term, for the FWF (Florida Wildlife Federation) and its associates, to go to a legal process," Cook said. "I guarantee you there is not a congressman or a senator that is going to vote for a single dollar of that $800 million (in federal cost share) to go to this project as long as there is any kind of legal situation."
Celeste De Palma, representing Audubon Florida, replied, "I can assure you 100 percent that nobody out there who advocated for this reservoir is looking to kill it. That is absolutely false."
De Palma explained that groups such as hers who voice objections to the lease were disappointed that SFWMD did not explore other interim uses of the land until the reservoir could be constructed.
Nyla Pipes, representing the One Florida Foundation, decried what she called "irresponsible activism" by groups claiming the EAA Storage Reservoir could be built in four years or that the land used for the lease could be used to store water next year.
"Some of the people who are writing in newspapers and giving interviews to those television stations are people who absolutely know better," Pipes said. "From an environmental standpoint, it is irresponsible to tell people you can move forward in four years on a project of this size. I'm tired of the misinformation."
Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Deputy District Commander for South Florida, said the project is moving forward quickly and SFWMD is working on design with "the full support of the federal government." Reynolds urged all sides to keep working together to move the reservoir and other restoration projects forward.
WRAC-invited attendees discussed false claims and misconceptions about the lease that have been heard by the public in recent weeks. Some of these items clarified include:
The terms of the lease: A false claim was made by several special interest groups before and after the Governing Board meeting that the lease would extend until 2046. The actual lease is a maximum of eight years. The lease can be terminated in as little as 24 months, which aligns with the two- to three-year time frame professional engineers optimistically agree it will take to design the project. Additionally, it gives SFWMD the ability to take fields out of production with no early termination fees as they are needed for construction of the reservoir.
The timing of the lease: The same groups also made false claims that the lease approval could have been delayed. SFWMD's Governing Board is committed to expediting the project and therefore voted on it as soon as possible so that crews could access the 560 acres in question immediately in order to do the site clearing and rock staging work during the dry season. Once the wet season comes, the work will not be able to be performed. Less than a week after the vote, SFWMD was performing site work on the land taken out of sugar production, as per the lease.
The timing of the agenda item: Several groups have falsely claimed that SFWMD violated Florida Sunshine Law and that the Governing Board's lease vote was purposely placed on the agenda the night before in an effort to hide it. Florida Sunshine Law requires notice of a meeting but does not require publication of an agenda. SFWMD did, however, notice the meeting and include an agenda viewable to the public. The agenda posted seven days before the meeting, pointed the public to the provisions of law that required the leasing of this land. SFWMD staff were working on finalizing the specific lease terms late into the night before the meeting as evidenced by emails between staff, such as the one that can be seen by clicking HERE. As soon as both parties came to terms with the lease agreement, the District updated its prior notice to indicate that staff would be recommending Governing Board action.
The ability to store water on the land: Several groups claimed the land could be used for interim water storage rather than agriculture as it awaited construction. State law authorizing the EAA Storage Reservoir, as well as funding conditions, clearly state that land for the reservoir must be kept in active agricultural production until it is ready for reservoir construction. Not approving a lease that provided for such would have disobeyed state law. Furthermore, not approving the lease would also take away lease revenue that the District uses to fund its effort in eradicating invasive species from places such as the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
The expiration of the funding clause: Some groups have pointed out that the clause in state law that mandates a new lease expires July 1, 2019. However, the existing leases on the land expire on March 31, 2019. The Florida Legislature's 2018 General Appropriations Bill, that appropriated $64 million for work on the EAA Storage Reservoir, clearly states that money is conditioned on not allowing the land to sit fallow. Not approving the new lease and letting the existing lease expire would have made the land in question fallow on April 1, 2019, a direct violation to the Legislature's clear instructions. Moreover, disobeying the Legislature's funding conditions would have endangered current and future state appropriations for the reservoir.
To recap on the EAA Storage Reservoir: The SFWMD started site preparation for it last month. It will feature a 240,000-acre-foot reservoir and a 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area. The reservoir, in conjunction with other restoration projects, will reduce harmful releases from Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries by 63 percent, meet goals for additional flows of fresh water south to the Everglades and will meet state water quality standards. The project has been approved by the U.S. Congress, and the Florida Legislature has committed its half of the estimated cost. The reservoir is still awaiting the federal government to fund its $800 million commitment to the project.
-- The bulk of this report was provided by the South Florida Water Management District staff.