South Florida Water Management District Sued Over Land Deal
The Florida Wildlife Federation is suing to block a new land lease extended to the sugar company Florida Crystals by the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), favoring the special interest over clean water and Everglades restoration efforts in a sudden chain of events that shocked the angling and conservation communities, and could have serious environmental repercussions for years to come.
The looming court battle stems from the fact that the new lease is for taxpayer-owned land slated for the construction of a water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee planned to clean polluted water before it is released into smaller rivers downstream, and to use that water to help restore the Everglades.
The lease agreement would allow the sugar corporation to continue farming on the reservoir site for eight years, during which time the state of Florida would be required to give the leaseholder two years notice before breaking ground on the project.
The president signed off on the project in October, but there’s been no timeline for when and how construction will proceed.
SFWMD argues that while the plans for the reservoir are developed and the federal funding acquired, the farming operations will generate revenue and prevent weeds from growing on the land, which they see as an obstacle to the reservoir’s construction.
“The reservoir will help reduce destructive discharges to Florida’s east and west coast estuaries, and we don’t want an argument over leasing to slow down moving forward on the reservoir construction,” says Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller.
Fuller and the Federation are taking issue with the short notice given to the public, arguing Florida law prohibits last-minute lease deals. Florida’s new Senate President Bill Galvano told reporters he didn’t have a problem with it.
“The management district was acting in its authority, and based on the timelines that exist, I did not have an issue with the renewal of the lease.” However, Florida’s new governor, Ron Desantis, might. He and new state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried are no fans of the sugar industry. Both blasted it during the course of their campaigns.
Meanwhile, one of the largest agriculture companies, U.S. Sugar, is moving to terminate the state of Florida’s option to purchase 150,000 acres of its land, something the Florida Wildlife Federation and others don’t want to see happen because the ongoing Everglades restoration could require more land.