Sugar farmers say it twice: We won't sell land for Lake Okeechobee reservoir

Tyler Treadway
Treasure Coast Newspapers

The largest landowners south of Lake Okeechobee have said, not once but twice, they won't sell any of their property to build a reservoir designed to cut discharges.

An aerial view of land proposed for a reservoir to store excess Lake Okeechobee water in the original version of Senate Bill 10 is seen March 24, 2017, on a tour with South Florida Water Management District.

The South Florida Water Management District confirmed Friday farmers representing 80 percent of the private land in the Everglades Agricultural Area sent the agency a second letter refusing to participate in the project.

The district received an emailed statement Nov. 7, spokesman Randy Smith said, in which landowners including Robert H. Buker Jr., president and CEO of U.S. Sugar Corp., and Alfonso and J. Pepe Fanjul, owners of Florida Crystals, declined to sell any land.

The statement argued:

  • The project won't stop discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers
  • Farmers already have given up too much land

More: Read the statement from farmers to the water district

Turns out the statement is exactly the same as one sent early last February to the Florida Legislature just before hearings on the project were about to begin.

More: Analysis: EAA farmers refuse to sell land for Lake O discharges plan" 

"I can't explain it," Smith said Thursday, "but that's the letter we received. Maybe they just sent the same letter."

The statement had no cover letter or salutation indicating to whom it was addressed.

"This is exactly the way we got it," Smith said. "This is the latest letter."

On Friday, the district revealed it also had received a hand-delivered letter Nov. 15 from the landowners dated Nov. 14.

More: Read the Nov. 14 letter from landowners to the district

That letter refers specifically to "inquiries" by the district about acquiring land for the reservoir project and states "we are not willing sellers of our farmland to the government."

It has the same 14 signatures as the February statement and gives similar reasons:

  • Farmers have already "lost" more than 120,000 acres of farmland for restoration projects
  • Taking more land out of production "would have a devastating economic effects" on farming communities and reduce local food supply

The state law authorizing the reservoir required the district to seek "willing sellers" and property owners willing to swap land near the site of the proposed reservoir for state-owned land elsewhere.

The district has presented five plans, including two "best buys," for the reservoir for the Florida Legislature to consider. All would be built almost entirely on land already owned by the state.

More: How big are the proposed reservoir footprints?

Several environmental groups argue the footprint is too small to meet the goals of dramatically cutting Lake O discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and sending more clean water to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

On Tuesday, the Everglades Coalition, made up of 62 environmental organizations, sent a letter Tuesday to Gov. Rick Scott urging him to "direct the district" to design options using more land acquired through swaps or purchases.

More: Read the Everglades Coalition letter to Gov. Rick Scott