A lease on sugar farms at the center of dispute that pitted Gov. Ron DeSantis against South Florida water managers was cancelled Thursday.
DeSantis announced Florida Crystals terminated the lease on land slated for a 17,000-acre reservoir - a critical piece of Everglades restoration needed to provide water to southern marshes. The sugar farmers voluntarily cancelled the lease on Monday, he said.
In an April letter, Florida Crystals had promised as much, saying that if the project sped up, they would surrender the land.
With the lease out of the way, construction on stormwater treatment areas needed to clean water in the reservoir can be expedited, said Steve Davis, an ecologist with the Everglades Foundation.
“We’ll be able to break ground as soon as the permits are in place,” he said. “This water will allow us to send water south for the first time while at the same time reducing those discharges that are unwanted...down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.”
The Foundation pushed Florida lawmakers to take charge of the project and pressure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to move it up the lengthy list of restoration projects after damaging lake flushes regularly fouled rivers with blue green algae.
But in November of 2018, the district’s former governing board infuriated the new governor when it extended Florida Crystals' lease despite DeSantis' request that they delay a vote. Board members said legislation creating the reservoir left them no choice because lawmakers insisted the land be farmed until contracts were signed to construct the reservoir.
Critics complained it was a last-minute move by the board appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott, now a state senator, to undermine DeSantis. Notice of the vote on the lease was posted just 12 hours before the field meeting in Miami.
In an unprecedented move, DeSantis demanded board members resign.
The treatment areas play a critical piece because lake water contains high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen that could fuel cattail growth and choke marshes. Some scientists have warned that the stormwater treatment areas are too small to clean water from the deepwater reservoir. And in a lengthy critic, Corps officials warned that the 23-foot deep would likely fail to meet water quality of dam safety standards. But district officials have said the treatment areas could be managed to meet strict water standards.
In June and August, the district applied for initial permits to build the stormwater treatment areas. Under the state-federal partnership for restoration, the state handles cleaning up water while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers builds storage projects.
The district has already started work on a small state-owned secton of the project and begun testing soil. Once the Corps approves permits, construction work on the marshes can begin, the statement said.