Sugar grower agrees to give up land early, clearing way for work on key Everglades reservoir

After years of negotiations, water managers took a simple but essential legal step forward on a giant reservoir considered key to Everglades restoration and reducing coastal algae blooms.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that state water managers can soon move to take control of land now farmed by the sugar industry that will be the future site of the reservoir — following an agreement by growing giant Florida Crystal to “voluntarily” terminate its lease on the land more than a year early. The lease with the South Florida Water Management District was originally set to expire on March 31, 2021.

The decision will give water managers earlier access to about 6,500 acres to start construction of a stormwater treatment area that’s part of a storage project called the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir. There is not yet a firm date for completion for the project but the massive storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee is supposed to eventually be capable of holding about 78 billion gallons of water.

The basin is designed to divert polluted water from Lake Okeechobee that is now sent down the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie to the east, flows that have contributed to nasty, fish-killing algae blooms. It also should help send more water south, passing it through treatment areas and toward the southern Everglades marshes starved for water and Florida Bay, where 40 square miles of seagrass have died.

“Getting the EAA Reservoir Project built and operational is a top priority, and this termination means we can continue to expedite this critical project,” said Drew Bartlett, executive director at the Water Management District.

The district will begin foundation work at the site as soon as the Corps issues the necessary permits, which are expected early next year. The District will build the stormwater treatment area while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will construct the reservoir in the joint state-federal project.

The New Hope Sugar Co., a subsidiary of Florida Crystals, sent a letter confirming the notice of termination of the lease to the district on Sept. 30, according to an emailed statement. The letter also notes that the company can continue farming “on a field-by-field basis until its operations are incompatible” with work on the reservoir.

“This week, we fulfilled our promise by releasing leased land early based on the district’s expedited construction schedule,” Gaston Cantens, a Florida Crystals vice president said in an emailed statement.

Environmentalists have been pushing for construction of this project to improve the quality of the water flowing south to the Everglades. Celeste De Palma, Everglades policy director at Audubon Florida, praised DeSantis and the district for “removing roadblocks to accelerating construction” of the reservoir.

“Every time we add capacity to clean water, we get closer and closer to sending a lot more clean water south,” she said in a tweet.

For years, a storage reservoir south of the lake was resisted by the sugar industry, which objected to taking active farmland out of production to be used as a water storage or water cleansing marsh as part of the Everglades recovery plan.

Early this year, DeSantis pushed out the entire district board after they ignored his request to put off a vote on renewing a Florida Crystals lease for land targeted for the Everglades reservoir just two days after he was elected.

The governor appointed a new board that adopted a more environment-focused mission statement, replacing a moderate plan “to manage and protect water resources of the region by balancing and improving flood control” with a goal to “safeguard South Florida’s water resources and ecosystems, protect our communities from flooding, and meet the region’s water needs while connecting with the public and stakeholders.”