Drain the District, Save the Swamp

The South Florida Water Management District Governing Board is preventing Everglades restoration and clean water in favor of special interests.

On November 7, 2018 at 9:00pm, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the agency responsible for Everglades restoration, amended the agenda for their Governing Board meeting that was scheduled for 9:30am the next morning.

The agenda item titled, “Constructing the Senate Bill 10 Reservoirs: Opportunities and Challenges in 2019” was amended to include a recommended action by SFWMD staff to extend leases on the EAA Reservoir site to Florida Crystals, a privately owned corporation that farms sugarcane south of Lake Okeechobee. Why was it added so late with no notice given to the public?

Another red flag was raised when the District’s records revealed a revised lease agreement that would extend the lease to 2046. This taxpayer-owned land was just authorized by Congress and the President for construction of the EAA Reservoira project that will decrease Lake Okeechobee discharges by over 50%. The same project that 30,000 of our supporters helped push through by contacting their Senators. This lease extension leads us to believe that the District has little interest in actually building the reservoir, a critical component needed to save the Everglades.

The new lease agreement would allow the sugar corporation to continue farming on the EAA Reservoir site for 8 years, during which time the State of Florida would be required to give the lease-holder two years notice before breaking ground on the reservoir.

The SFWMD staff presented this plan to their Governing Board as a purposeful use of the land while the plans for the reservoir are developed and the federal funding acquired. They argue that the farming operations will generate revenue, and prevent weeds from growing on the land which they see as an obstacle to constructing the reservoir. Seriously, weeds?

Several speakers urged the board to postpone the vote until proper diligence could be done including attorney and Executive Director of Everglades Law Center Lisa Interlandi, Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of the Everglades Foundation Shannon Estenoz, Congressman Brian Mast, Director of Everglades Policy at Audubon Florida Celeste de Palma, Captain Benny Blanco, and our founders, Captains Daniel Andrews and Chris Wittman.

Our request was simple: give us the opportunity to review these leases to ensure they are legally-sound and in the best interest of our communities, Everglades restoration, and the taxpayers who own the land.

Congressman Brian Mast (R) of Florida’s 18th District spoke directly on behalf of Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, requesting a chance for the Governor-elect and federal legislators to be briefed on the leases to mitigate additional hurdles and ensure the leases aren’t impossible to get out of.

The response from the SFWMD Governing Board was, quite frankly, appalling. The members were adamant that they would move forward with the vote that day, accusing the speakers of trying to delay the project.

In a condemning tone, Vice Chair Melanie Peterson defended the District’s actions, “We have leases on our project lands because that’s the responsible thing to do and that’s how we manage the land that’s entrusted to us by the public when we purchase it for these projects far in advance. This lease is no different than any other lease that we have and that we approve that we go forward with on a daily and monthly basis.”

Governing Board member Brandon Tucker accused the speakers of trying to stop the progress of Senate Bill 10, also expressing his concern of weeds growing on the property, “If we did not renew these leases and this tenant leaves this property, I have never known a best management practice that you would ever want a piece of property that will look like that photograph [ referring to a photo of land with weeds growing ] quicker than you can blink, growed up with all kinds of invasive vegetation, you don’t know what kind of species are going to come in. To be a good steward of the land, the best management practice is to allow farming operations whatever they are. They need to stay there and continue to operate.”

The board proceeded to vote to approve the lease amendments during the meeting. Our Executive Director, Capt. Daniel Andrews expressed his disapproval, “It’s unfortunate that all of the Governing Board members wanted to proceed but moreso that they were insulting to the people there, mischaracterizing what we’re doing as trying to delay a project that many of us literally quit our jobs to see to fruition. The government’s job shouldn’t be to suppress the voices of the people trying to make this state a better place. What I witnessed this morning was the most blatantly corrupt and harmful action I’ve seen from any governing body in the last three years being involved with the fight to clean up our waters,” says Capt. Daniel Andrews.

This isn’t just about another political injustice. This is about decades of water mismanagement decisions that favor special interests; the status quo that allows Florida’s water crisis to continue and worsen. In the past, these types of deceptive actions could slide by under the radar and the public would be none the wiser.

But that time has come to an end. Captains for Clean Water exists to ensure that you are informed about these corrupt backroom dealings, empowering you to have a voice, be a part of the solutions, and hold accountable those with the power to enforce change.

What happens now?

The SFWMD Governing Board is preventing Everglades restoration and clean water. Governor-elect Ron DeSantis needs to #DrainTheDistrict and replace all nine SFWMD Governing Board members on day one. The members include Chairman Frederico Fernandez, Vice Chair Melanie Peterson, Sam Accursio, Rick Barber, Carlos Diaz, James J. Moran, Dan O’Keefe, Brandon Tucker, and Jaime Weisinger.

Eric Eikenberg, CEO of The Everglades Foundation, sent a formal letter to Governor Rick Scott protesting “the illegal, shameful and undemocratic action” by Scott’s appointees at the District and urging him to demand the resignations of the entire Governing Board and Executive Director Ernie Marks.   

Captains for Clean Water shares this stance and will not sit idle as injustice is done. We will be working with our elected officials, pushing for the resignation of the Governing Board and keeping you informed every step of the way.

How can you help?

This affects all of us. These shady decisions that get made behind closed doors and slid under the radar only work when the public doesn’t know about them—or worse—doesn’t care.

Help by spreading the message. Share this knowledge with people you know. Share our posts on social media. Have conversations with fellow Floridians. Take an hour a week to get up-to-speed on progress and obstacles in the fight for clean water.

Check out this video where Captains Daniel Andrews, Chris Wittman and Benny Blanco and Congressman Brian Mast sum up the Governing Board meeting.

#ReplaceThemAll