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Water Managers Renew Sugar Company's Lease On Land Slated For Everglades Reservoir Project

Sugarcane fields and stormwater treatment areas near the Everglades Agricultural Area.
Sugarcane fields and stormwater treatment areas near the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Environmental groups and state water managers are sparring over land for an Everglades restoration project to help with Florida’s algae blooms, following a controversial vote last week by the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District.

On Thursday, officials with the district approved extending a lease for sugar farmers on land that has been slated for a water storage reservoir. The reservoir is intended to reduce the need for water discharges from Lake Okeechobee, which contribute to algae blooms on Florida's coasts.

Environmental groups say the decision benefits the company, Florida Crystals, to the detriment of people and communities impacted by blue-green algae blooms.

"This agency is nowhere in tune with what’s happening in the real world," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. In a letter, he called on Gov. Rick Scott to remove the water management district's director, Ernie Marks, and the entire governing board.

Read more: National Report Says Agencies Behind Everglades Restoration Need To Account For Climate Change

The more than 16,000 acres of land in question are owned by the district and leased to Florida Crystals. That lease had been set to expire in March of next year. But with Thursday's vote, the district approved extending the sugar company’s lease for another eight years.

The law creating the reservoir requires water managers to use the land in a way that provides the maximum public benefit -- including allowing farming to continue until it would get in the way of preparing or constructing the reservoir.

Eikenberg called renewing the lease "a travesty" and said the governing board could have extended the lease for a few months rather than eight years. The district did not make anyone available to WLRN for comment.

Opponents of the lease extension  told the Miami Herald the lease didn't need to be renewed in November since the governing board has three more meetings before the lease expires in March. They also took issue with the lease being added to the governing board's agenda less than a day before the meeting.

The last-minute agenda addition did not violate any laws, according to the president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan Florida watchdog group.

"The sunshine law requires ... reasonable notice of the board’s meetings," FAF President Barbara Petersen told the Treasure Coast news outlet TCPalm. "An agenda of what will be discussed — or acted upon — is not required, and there’s no prohibition on the board taking action on items not included in the notice, or on the agenda."

At the same meeting, the district's governing board also voted to request an end to federal oversight of whether the district is cleaning water to appropriate levels for restoration.

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