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Home Environment $1.6 billion Everglades reservoir site work could begin early next year

$1.6 billion Everglades reservoir site work could begin early next year

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Kayakers paddle through mangrove tunnels in Everglades National park. --Shutterstock photo

By John Haughey | The Center Square

Florida Crystals Corp. wants to terminate its controversial 6,000-acre lease within the Everglades Agricultural Area about 15 months early, clearing the way to begin site preparation for a $1.6 billion reservoir project early next year.

Florida Crystals sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis, the South Florida Water Management District (SoftMud) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) requesting to immediately terminate a 2,000-acre lease within the proposed 10,100-acre reservoir’s 6,500-acre stormwater treatment area (STA).

The letter asks to end leases on another 1,000 acres in the STA in December 2020 and 3,000 acres in March 2021. The leases would have expired in April 2021.

The EAA reservoir is among a suite of Everglades restoration projects approved by state lawmakers in 2017, including three additional above-ground reservoirs, that are either under construction or in the planning stages.

The federal America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 requires the EAA reservoir’s $1.6 billion cost be split between the state and the federal government over 10 years.

The state wants to accelerate the timeline for the project from 10-year horizons to within seven years. Gov. DeSantis has proposed a four-year, $2.5 billion Everglades restoration plan that includes the EAA reservoir among other water-quality environmental projects.

DeSantis requested $625 million for the program in his fiscal year 2020 budget and received $682 million. He has also asked for $625 million in his fiscal 2021 budget request.

The state’s plan is to get the federal government to provide at least $200 million a year in match-funding until it is completed; the faster the money comes from Washington, the sooner work on the 240,000-acre-feet reservoir in southwest Palm Beach County begins.

But after receiving $200 million in fiscal 2020 federal funding, Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget request seeks only $63 million for Everglades restoration.

In a March visit to Lake Okeechobee’s Canal Point, Trump seemed amenable to boosting the funding, a high priority lobby for DeSantis and Florida’s Congressional delegation.

Two days after taking office, DeSantis recalled, he made expediting Everglades restoration projects a priority “because we cannot afford to wait.”

“Today’s news is an important step forward in expediting construction of the EAA Reservoir Project and reducing the harmful discharges hurting our coastal estuaries,” DeSantis said in a statement. “The EAA Reservoir Project will continue to be a top priority of my administration.”

SoftMud Executive Director Drew Bartlett said the district secured permits for the STA component from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in June and August. It expects to begin pushing dirt no later than May 2020, he said, noting “construction of the STA is fully funded.”

Among the reservoir’s benefits is it will corral and treat discharges from Lake Okeechobee before releasing them into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, diminishing the capacity for toxic blue-green algae to spread.

“With no contractual impediments remaining, it is now increasingly urgent for Congress to approve full $200 million per-year funding for Everglades restoration projects, including the Everglades Reservoir,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said Thursday.

Last November, the SoftMud board quietly approved the 6,000-acre lease with Florida Crystals subsidiary New Hope Sugar Co. The lease was added to the agenda the night before, sparking demands from environmentalists and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast for DeSantis to cancel the lease when he took office in January.

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