South Flor­ida Wa­ter Man­age­ment Dis­trict Sued Over Land Deal

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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.

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