Over the last few months, South Florida Water Management (SFWMD) has met nine times with local communities to gauge support for a new reservoir construction project mandated by Senate Bill 10, passed into law last May.
While community response has been mixed – some calling for a more extensive footprint, some fighting tooth and nail against the project, to protect farmland – SFWMD spokesperson Randy Smith says that the meetings have been useful, and generally positive. “I thought they were very informative,” Smith said. “We had good crowds at every one. We went through the details and got a lot of public input.”
Senate Bill 10 directs SFWMD to construct at least 240,000 of new acre-feet of storage and water treatment south of Lake Okeechobee, in order to staunch harmful discharges to South Florida’s coastal estuaries. This acre-footage would hold more than 78 billion gallons of water, and in combination with other reservoirs currently under construction (such as the C-44 reservoir slated to be in operation along the St. Lucie Canal by the end of 2019), would make a serious dent in the discharges.
At press time, SFWMD is scheduled to present four alternative models of their southern reservoir to the Florida Senate, seeking advisement going forward.
Before any new movement on reservoir construction is to take place, Smith says that the district will need to submit a Post-Authorization Change Request (PACR) to the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal requirement since the new construction would constitute a change to CEPP (Central Everglades Planning Project), an extensive suite of restoration projects in the Central Everglades, authorized in 2015. If all goes according to plan, the PACR would be approved by the Army Corps by October, and construction would be able to commence sometime in mid-2019, says Smith.
The PACR would also help reorganize federal and state cost-share for the project, says Smith.
In December, Florida Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart), one of the drafters of Senate Bill 10, sent a letter to SFWMD, encouraging them to consider a more “flexible footprint” for the reservoir project, meaning the District is to do whatever possible to expedite their timeline, and maximize storage.
The different models propose construction on the A-1 and A-2, plots of district- and state-owned land, all of which will be available by 2019. A-1 currently houses a shallow FEB (Flow-Equalization Basin) that could store up to 60,000 acre feet of stormwater. Designs to deepen this reservoir and maximize storage capacity have figured into SFWMD’s models.
Negron’s concern is that the District may not be considering all of the tools at their disposal for land-acquisition. While prohibited from taking private land through eminent domain, the district is able to terminate or amend leases on currently occupied state-owned land, in order to make it available for reservoir construction. The District is also explicitly encouraged in the bill to entertain land-swaps for private property that may benefit a more contiguous reservoir construction.
“I was concerned that they were not taking advantage – to the degree that they are able to under the law – of land-swaps and lease terminations that may make more land available to the state,” Negron said at a panel discussion last week.
While reluctant to cast a verdict before SFWMD’s options are on the table, Negron mentions two considerations that he hopes will figure into the plans: use of approximately 3,500 acres to the west of A-2, and the possibility of exchanging Florida’s PRIDE lands (state lands leased to the Department of Corrections for prison work programs) for more advantageous property, currently owned by agricultural interests.
“Be creative, and follow the law,” Negron said, “but look for as large of a footprint as we need, to make maximum use of the reservoir.”
The Florida Senate has already earmarked $800 million for the project, and is waiting for the feds to match with $750 million. The largest budget SFWMD is looking at will cost $1.95 billion. Negron has said that if more state funds are needed, he will consider a larger allowance for the construction.
According to Peter Girard, content developer for Bullsugar.org, a Stuart-based water advocacy group, if the PRIDE lands were to be made available for exchange, they could effectively be swapped with sugar land. “If they follow this course, they can swap land with the sugar industry, and create a situation where the sugar industry has zero net loss of farmable land … it’s even possible they could have a net gain,” says Girard.
At several of SFWMD’s public meetings, several local citizens have launched an outcry against the reservoir construction, claiming that it is merely a pretext for land-grabbing, with Belle Glade and Clewiston officials lending voice. “When you hear comments of ‘take the land’ and ‘flood their towns,’ those are incendiary comments,” said Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner. “And when we know that there are underlying forces that do want to see agriculture taken out of the EAA, and people who do want to see our towns decimated, we are going to stand up. We are going to speak.”
As to these concerns, Girard responds, that taking land through eminent domain is expressly permitted by the bill, and that when advocacy groups like his are calling for a larger footprint, they are really talking about these equitable land-swaps with agricultural interests.
Smith corroborates: “The district is going to follow the letter of the law to a T. The law reads that the state does not have the ability to do a land-take through eminent domain. If we find willing sellers for additional land, fine. But we’re not allowed to take someone’s land. At this point, we have not found any large landowners who are even willing to talk to us about buying the land.”
This question shall soon be answered: Is SFWMD looking at all the tools that Senate Bill 10 affords it, is its approach as “creative” as Sen. Negron would have it, and will it be able to maximize reservoir construction, as opposed to towing the bare minimum required.
Article by: Adam Laten Willson