South Florida water managers cancel lease option, ending historic deal to buy sugar land

A decade-old land deal to buy up thousands of acres of sugar land to save the Everglades died quietly with a unanimous vote Thursday.

The South Florida Water Management District agreed to terminate the option worked out by former Gov. Charlie Crist, a move crafted by lawmakers two years when they drafted the law creating an Everglades reservoir now at the center of dispute between water managers and the state’s new governor.

Last month, water managers angered Governor-elect Ron DeSantis when they agreed to continue leasing land to sugar farmers. The reservoir will occupy the leased land and was also part of the reservoir deal. DeSantis campaigned on a promise to fight the sugar industry that owns much of the land south of Lake Okeechobee critical to fixing the Everglades.

“The only choice we have today is are we going to comply with the Florida statute or are we going to violate the Florida statute,” said board member and former chair Dan O’Keefe.

In 2008, Crist, who is now a U.S. representative, negotiated a historic deal to buy 187,000 acres of sugar land for $1.75 billion. The drained farm fields block the historic flow of water south into southern marshes and Everglades National Park. At the time, the industry backed the plan amid plunging sugar prices. But within a year, the deal started falling apart as the economy stumbled. A year later, Crist announced a plan to buy less than half the land with a 10-year option to buy an additional 107,000 acres. Ultimately, the state only purchased about 23,000 acres and in 2015, the district let an option to buy nearly 47,000 acres expire.

When lawmakers drafted the legislation for the Everglades reservoir — about a third of the size of what was originally envisioned thanks to heavy lobbying from the sugar industry — they also called for the district to cancel the final option on the land.

The Everglades Foundation, which fought for a bigger reservoir but ultimately backed the plan, has fiercely criticized the board for not holding off on decisions until DeSantis takes office. Over the weekend, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Treasure Coast Republican whose district has been slimed by repeated algae blooms from dirty discharges from Lake Okeechobee, called for the entire board to resign.

“We have to build a larger footprint for a proper reservoir. We know it,” Everglades Trust Executive Director Kimberly Mitchell told board members Thursday. “Wait and use the power this agency has to get the proper reservoir built. “

Mitchell also took a shot at the board for criticizing activists.

“I hear the word used by you as if it’s a four-letter word: activist,” she said. “It’s not a dirty word. It’s how America started.”

Board chairman Federico Fernandez angrily defended the board, saying their beef was with the Trust for misconstruing the board’s actions.

“I don’t accept the conclusion that we have a blanket issue against activism. It is quite the opposite,” he said. “You are looking at a board of activists.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich