Miami-Dade County

U.S. Sugar land deal gets a second but unlikely shot

The governing board of the South Florida Water Management District plans to revisit a land deal that expires in October to buy 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land. The district originally negotiated to buy the land to store water to quench the southern Everglades. District staff now says the land is a poor choice and wants to look for better options.
The governing board of the South Florida Water Management District plans to revisit a land deal that expires in October to buy 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land. The district originally negotiated to buy the land to store water to quench the southern Everglades. District staff now says the land is a poor choice and wants to look for better options. Miami Herald Staff

An option for the state to buy a huge chunk of sugar fields — a deal at the center of a dispute over how to spend money generated by a constitutional measure intended to preserve Florida lands — will get a surprising second chance before the South Florida Water Management board this month.

Don’t look for a resurrection.

The $500 million-plus deal, already turned down by water managers last month, is likely to be rejected again in a move that seems largely designed to send a message to Florida legislators. Namely, that the board appointed by Gov. Rick Scott stands behind the governor’s proposal to spend $5 billion over the 20-year life of Amendment 1 on Everglades restoration projects — but not on 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land.

“It doesn’t make sense for us to continually have a loose end out there,” District Chief of Staff Dan DeLisi said Thursday. “It’s really detracting from the discussion about the governor’s funding plan, which is really the important thing.”

The land, southwest of Lake Okeechobee, was originally part of a historic deal cut by former Gov. Charlie Crist to buy all 300-square miles of U.S. Sugar land. In 2010, a compromise forced by the state’s housing bust and economic decline gave the state an option to buy chunks of the sugar farms at fair market price. Environmentalists pushed hard for the purchase with money from the landmark amendment, mounting protests that included a Tallahassee concert by Jimmy Buffett. But the sugar company also lobbied against it, and the water district and legislators backed away from using the new stream of money for the deal.

DeLisi said the land no longer represents the best option for storing water. A lease-back arrangement with U.S. Sugar would make most of the land unusable for a decade. It is also isolated from other projects, said Division Director Jeff Kivett, making it more expensive to operate.

“As an engineer, I can build almost anything anywhere, but there’s also a cost associated with that,” he said.

So rather than rush to beat an October expiration date on the sugar deal, DeLisi said the district needs to create another planning project, similar to the Central Everglades Planning Project. That plan carved a suite of projects out of a larger 30-year Everglades restoration blueprint in an attempt to speed up some key work. The new package could identify the best land to solve storage and water-quality issues that have appeared in the years since former President Bill Clinton approved the 2000 plan, DeLisi said.

But environmentalists, frustrated by the slow progress and angered by efforts to divert Amendment 1 money to projects unrelated to land conservation — like municipal sewer projects — say taking time for more planning could result in more delays for an ecosystem in crisis. Starved of freshwater, Florida Bay has turned too salty over the dry winter and now risks passing levels set to insure the health of the bay. And on Friday, the U.S. Corps of Engineers will resume releasing water into the St. Lucie River, where polluted water periodically triggers toxic algae blooms.

“If the district is going to come up with a plan to have water storage, then great,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. “But if this is a new charade that is moving chairs around the deck of the Titanic, it’s not going to work.”

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