Miami-Dade County

South Florida water managers kill deal to buy U.S. Sugar farmland

In the end, not even parrot heads could persuade them. On Thursday, South Florida water managers voted to kill a deal to buy 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar farmland to help restore the wilting Everglades.

Calling the deal a distraction from restoration efforts, board members said the plan orchestrated by former Gov. Charlie Crist came at too high a cost with too little benefit. Instead, they agreed to back a $5 billion plan from Gov. Rick Scott after months of bitter protests, meetings filled with sign-waving demonstrators and a rousing Tallahassee concert by Jimmy Buffett.

“This U.S. Sugar contract was a boondoggle from the day it was signed,” said board member Jim Moran, who was appointed by Scott. “It’s a disgrace.”

The deal, set to expire in October, had been fiercely championed by environmentalists as the best option for storing water from Lake Okeechobee. They envisioned the land being used to ease pressure to release polluted water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, allowing water managers to instead hold it until it could be moved south to Florida Bay. Parts of the bay have become far too salty, killing sea grass that provides critical habitat for marine life and driving down the number of sea trout, a fish used to measure the health of the bay.

But the district has argued that lease restrictions and the cost of moving U.S. Sugar railroad tracks, power lines and roads make the land a poor candidate for storage.

Including the $500 million to $700 million sales price, building a reservoir could eventually cost $2.5 billion, said operations chief Jeff Kivett. Staff members also said that before any water could be moved, other projects would need to be completed to ensure that the water reached the right place. In recent months, the district has released large amounts of water — 600,000 acre feet — that have failed to quench the bay, said water resources director Terrie Bates.

Board members agreed that more storage is needed, but said better options need to be explored.

“There are really and truly constraints out there. For me, the biggest one is financial,” said board member Sandy Batchelor.

But without the deal, few options exist. U.S. Sugar once supported the sale but backed away from it and on Thursday threw its support behind Scott’s plan, committing in a press release to work with “state and federal parties as well as willing environmental organizations.”

Environmentalists argue that buying the land was exactly what voters intended when they passed a landmark constitutional measure in November, setting aside a third of taxes from real estate deals — an estimated $10 billion over 20 years — to save sensitive land and restore the Everglades. Once it passed, many expected the farmland to be included in purchases. Instead, they now worry lawmakers will chip away at the money for infrastructure work and other projects not intended by voters. They also argue that without the deal, the district has failed to offer an alternative.

“Our frustration comes from the fact that you do not have a Plan B,’’ said former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla. “You keep telling us what we can’t do, not what we can do.”