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Last-minute state deal with sugar growers sets up potential political fight


South Florida water managers on Thursday hastily agreed to let sugar farmers continue leasing land targeted for an Everglades restoration reservoir, angering environmentalists and potentially setting up a power play with the state’s would-be new governor.

In a series of morning tweets, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg claimed “the public deception is underway” as a South Florida Water Management District government board meeting started in Miami. Eikenberg accused officials of trying to derail the project by tying up the land for two more years and failing to give adequate notice for the decision.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast echoed those concerns during public comment, saying Ron DeSantis, the Republican who has railed against the sugar industry and maintains a narrow lead in a state governor race facing a recount, asked him to deliver a message: Postpone the vote.

“The governor-elect as well as federal legislators would like to be briefed,” said Mast, a fellow Republican whose district includes coastal communities along the St. Lucie River repeatedly slammed by blue-green algae blooms ignited by polluted water from Lake Okeechobee

The district currently rents the land, about 16,000 acres, to Florida Crystals. But the lease expires in March. Under the law creating the reservoir, officials said lawmakers required them to allow the company to continue farming until work begins on the massive project, which President Donald Trump signed off on last month. The approval was celebrated as a major victory following a contentious fight last year that pitted farmers and Glades communities against coastal businesses and residents.

An algae bloom across much of Lake Okeechobee spread to the Caloosahatchee River, where it floated in smelly, slimy mats near LaBelle over the summer. Pedro Portal

This past summer, that outrage was compounded by a saltwater red tide, also fed by coastal pollution, that littered beaches with dead marine life and became a central issue in a heated election.

DeSantis, who claimed to be the “only candidate who fought Big Sugar and lived to tell about it,” and voted against sugar subsidies while in Congress, has been embraced by some environmentalists. His opposition to the industry helped him win an endorsement from the Everglades Trust and a hearty congratulations from the Everglades Foundation, which does not endorse candidates but has lent support, including a press conference with outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott in the closing days of his race against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. The tight Nelson-Scott race is also going to a recount.

District officials said they complied with meeting laws and would have listed Thursday’s vote in the meeting agenda sooner but only reached a deal with Florida Crystals late Wednesday. Board chairman Federico Fernandez, who seemed genuinely surprised by the negative reaction, said he was assured the decision met requirements.

“Across the board we were given confirmation that we were in compliance,” he said.

But the last-minute decision infuriated environmentalists already concerned about lease negotiations, who complained it violated public notice requirements.

“If they were open and honest, they would have said they were voting on it last week,” said Everglades Law Center Executive Director Lisa Interlandi. “They clearly did a bait and switch.”

Red tide was blamed for killing thousands of fish in Manatee County during the year-long bloom. Samantha Putterman

The law also provided more flexibility than interpreted by the district, said Everglades Foundation chief operating office Shannon Estenoz, who oversaw Everglades restoration at the Department of Interior under the Obama administration.

“The language did not force a vote today,” she said. “It does not in any way dictate the terms of a lease. It allows flexibility.”

Hours later, the board members made a second surprise move when they voted 6-3, following a closed session with attorneys, to ask a federal judge to throw out a decades-old legal settlement that ensures polluted water coming out of the sugar fields is cleaned. Last year, the district drafted a motion and sent it to the Department of Justice to end the deal, but the talks fizzled without a formal motion being filed.

“They’re lighting things on fire,” said Audubon Florida Everglades Policy Director Celeste De Palma, the only environmental activist left at the meeting when the vote occurred. “I just happened to stay because I had a bad feeling.”

According to emails released by the district Wednesday, staff began negotiating with Florida Crystals at least as early as July. Over the last three months, they ironed out a deal that allows the district to take control of about 560 acres to begin preliminary work and continue leasing the remaining land to the sugar company for the next eight years as the 17,000-acre reservoir is designed. If work proceeds faster than expected, the lease can be terminated after 20 months.

In a presentation, district general counsel Brian Accardo said the law that laid out how the district should proceed on the project said leases should be negotiated.

Much of his presentation dwelt on what he described as bigger obstacles: finalizing a design with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and getting the feds to partly pay for cleaning water, typically a state responsibility, and awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit over state environmental money that could complicate maintaining the project.

Accardo later said the district is not required to give notice on a vote and the law itself served as notice because it spelled out steps for negotiating leases.

“The law requires us to expedite the project,” he said.

But under Florida law, rules generally require reasonable notice of pending decisions to allow the public sufficient time to comment, said Barbara Peterson, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation.

“The water management district must allow a reasonable opportunity for the public to be heard on those items coming before it for a vote,” she said in an email.

Environmentalists say the bigger issue is extending the lease ties up the land, which could be used to store water in a system that is struggling with high water. After hearing little about the lease and knowing the lease was due to expire in March, the Everglades Foundation sent a records request on Oct. 29 to learn more about progress, Estenoz said. When a staff attorney spotted the agenda item, she followed up on the request. The district finally provided the records Wednesday, Estenoz said.

“They just sent a very clear signal to the Governor-elect DeSantis and Congressman Mast and frankly to Gov. Scott that we really don’t have any interest in working with you,” she said. “I’m genuinely shocked. Usually appointed officials are very respectful of the electoral process, so clearly it’s time for a change at the water management district.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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