Water managers face scrutiny from DeSantis over Everglades land deal with Big Sugar

Florida’s incoming governor stopped short of demanding South Florida water managers step down over a contentious land deal with sugar farmers, saying he would instead await a recommendation from his transition team.

That doesn’t mean their days may not be numbered.

On Sunday, the team leader for environmental matters, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Treasure Coast Republican whose district has been repeatedly slammed by algae blooms that a reservoir on the land could help fix, called for the board to resign.

“I think they have been derelict in their duties,” he said in an interview with CBS4’s Jim DeFede Sunday.

The dust-up stems from a decision by the South Florida Water Management District last month to continue leasing land to Florida Crystals on land slated for a 17,000-acre Everglades reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir was opposed by sugar farmers, who succeeded in paring down the project from an original footprint covering 60,000 acres and big enough to clean and store water and help cut polluted lake discharges that have regularly triggered slimy foul blooms that close beaches and hurt waterfront businesses.

As part of the deal, lawmakers said the district must allow farmers to continue farming the land until construction on the reservoir got underway.

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Dead fish clog a canal in Coral Shores in Southwest Florida in August.

Tiffany Tompkins Bradenton Herald

Environmentalists and anglers, however, were incensed when the governing board decided to vote on the lease, set to expire in March, just two days after the election where water quality became a central issue after blue green algae blooms followed by a red tide compounded the state’s water woes. The decision, they complained, was also made without fair warning. The matter was originally listed on the November meeting agenda as a discussion item. It was switched to a vote after 9 p.m. the night before.

Mast also showed up at the field meeting, held in Miami well over an hour’s drive from the district’s West Palm Beach headquarters, to demand the vote be postponed to give the incoming governor time to review it. He said the request came directly from DeSantis.

Board members voted anyway. The eight-year lease allowed them to begin preliminary work and gave them the ability to order farmers off the land after 20 months of reservoir planning happened faster than expected, they said.

Mast’s sharp criticism ignited rumors that DeSantis would demand the board’s removal. But in a statement late Monday, his staff said he had asked the transition team to make recommendations both on policy and administration.

Chairman Federico Fernandez also defended the board’s move, saying the district had conferred with the incoming senate president and was carrying out marching orders from state lawmakers to move as quickly as possible.

“With all due respect to the congressman, we went through an extensive legislative process,” he said. “There’s nothing to hide here. The lease has been published. The terms are really clear. If there was some kind of attempt to undermine the law, it would be a really futile effort to go ahead and publish a lease for all to see. There’s a lot of contradictions going on here and a lot of hypocrisy.”

Waiting, he said, would not have changed the law’s instructions.

“When I’m asked why didn’t we wait, it’s a simple response. Delay is not an option when you have been tasked with providing solutions in as expedited and responsible a manner as possible,” he said. “The law wasn’t going to change between November and December. What would have changed is we would have lost a month of access that we didn’t have and we now have.”

Under the law hammered out by legislators in 2017 and spelled out again in the 2018 appropriation bill awarding $64 million to begin work, lawmakers said farming should continue until it interfered with the reservoir. In phone calls with the district during the spring 2018 session, Senate President Joe Negron’s staff made clear they wanted operations for sugar farmers to continue, district officials said.

“We received a series of phone calls from Negron’s staff saying they were writing the implementing language for [the reservoir law] saying they wanted to clarify the language that’s in there,” said Eva Vélez, a district engineer in charge of Everglades policy and coordination.

The message was clear, she said: keep sugar operations going until construction started. Negron’s office said late Monday it was looking into the matter but had not responded by deadline.

If there was a time to object to the deal, it was when the law was hammered out, Fernandez said.

“If they want to call for my resignation, it’s their right, but I’m going to continue to insist that they judge me on the work I’m performing, which is by the letter of the law,” he said.

Mast held the transition team’s first meeting on Monday in Tallahassee. The group did not address concerns over the board but plan to take it up at the next meeting. Mast’s office said his views on the district’s actions had not changed.

“There was no law passed requiring the board to sign a lease without any public input nor any law passed preventing a one month pause so the governor-elect and public could understand what was being proposed,” spokesman Brad Stewart said in an email. “In fact, the law requires public disclosure and their actions certainly violated the spirit of that law and probably the letter of the law as well.”

Fernandez said no one from DeSantis’ office had yet contacted him, but he plans on trying to meet with Mast when he heads to Washington next week.

The existing board was appointed at different times by Gov. Rick Scott. Fernandez, among the board’s junior members after being appointed in August 2016, took over as chair last year. He does not believe board members confirmed by the senate, like himself, can be removed. Three members’ terms are set to expire in March.

“I do not feel that I can be forcibly removed from the board,” he said, “and it is my intention to serve to the best of my ability for that duration.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich