A reservoir that will clean polluted water coming from Lake Okeechobee and send it toward the Everglades instead of directing dirty water toward the coasts may be delayed because of a recent, controversial decision; last week the land where the reservoir is supposed to be built had its lease to a major sugar company extended by the South Florida Water Management District.
That doesn’t sit well with Eric Eikenberg, the CEO of the Everglades Foundation.
“Well, I think it’s important to step back and just realize that for three out of the last six summers Florida has been ravaged by blue-green toxic algae from Lake Okeechobee that’s being dumped east and west down the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee Rivers. By doing so it’s not only producing fish kill and economic loss, but also threats to the tourism industry, real estate and it is a threat to human health. It’s a public health emergency.
“So, we saw that again exasperated in 2016. And following that summer of algae, we had a (State) Senate President, Joe Negron, who said that we need to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee so that we can redirect – we can divert the water. Instead of going east and west we can store, clean and send that water south to the Everglades. And ultimately that (cleaned) water gets down to the Florida Keys where it’s naturally supposed to go.
“Legislation was filed in Tallahassee in 2017 calling for this reservoir to be constructed on 16,000 acres on land owned by the Florida taxpayers that are currently leased to one of the two major sugar companies: Florida Crystals. So we’ve been operating since 2017 – this year the United States approved the project and President Trump signed legislation in late October that approves the construction of thus reservoir on these 16,000 (acres).
“What happened last week – the 16,000 acres – the lease that the State of Florida has with Florida Crystals expires March 31st of 2019. So, the earliest for the state and the water management district (SFWMD – the South Florida Water Management District) to begin preparing the site, having temporary storage capacity would have been in April of next year based on the fact the lease was to expire on the 31st.
“Without any notice, without any public discussion, against the will of Governor-Elect* Ron DeSantis and a U.S. Congressman, the water management district last week voted 8-0 to take that lease and extend it for 8 more years, basically putting this reservoir project on hold.”
And you were taken by surprise by that vote?
“We were. The agenda for the meeting was published a week prior. This meeting took place last Thursday, November the 8th, in Miami, one of the furthest points away from the water management district. They met in a difficult location at the University of Miami.
“Certainly, people that did attend were traveling through the traffic of South Florida that morning. But they noticed the meeting and it said that they would have a discussion about the reservoir project itself. It wasn’t until 9:30 the night before – Wednesday November the 7th – did they amend the agenda and say that they, in fact, would be voting on extending the lease for 8 years.
“So it was done in the dark of night. And without any public input or understanding, they voted 8-0 to extend that critical lease.”
What would it take, now that the lease has been extended, for construction of the reservoir to begin on time? Is there another time that you’d have to strike with the sugar growers?
“Well, the earliest that you would be able to have dirt turned is now 24 months. So, we now have to wait at least two years. So, two more summers. Two more potential summers of algae and red tide and fish kill like we’ve experienced. So, the water management district is unable to do anything for a minimum of two years.
“And then, once that occurs, the way the water management district placed all these artificial obstructions in front of themselves – for example, they publicly stated that they need all the money from Washington in order to build this project.
“That’s not the way Everglades restoration operates. This has always been a pay-as-you-go public works project. The state of Florida puts its money forward. The feds come around each year to provide money. The idea of having all this money in a bank account before you can start turning dirt is preposterous. So, they’ve placed all these artificial barriers.
“The sense of urgency that voters in this state, residents of this state, have had due to the algae crisis – for this decision to be made on November the 8th – four months prior to the expiration of that reservoir (lease), prior to the inauguration of a new governor, slaps in the face of what, truly, the public needs. And that is a redirection of that lake water. And it needs to flow south.”
*In this interview conducted on 13 November, Eikenberg referred to “Governor Elect Ron DeSantis,” even though the results of his race are close and the machine recount won’t end until at least 15 November.