The clock is ticking on a deal to buy thousands of acres of land needed to revive Biscayne Bay and the Everglades, say environmentalists who packed a South Florida Water Management District board meeting Thursday.
The deal, a fraction of a once-massive purchase brokered by former Gov. Charlie Crist to scoop up all of U.S. Sugar’s 180,000-acre empire, is set to expire Oct. 15. Environmentalist worry that unless the district acts quickly, time will run out. The deal covers 46,800 acres south of Lake Okeechobee that could be used to store and clean excess lake water before sending it south to the Everglades.
“This option is it,” said Cara Capp, national co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, which represents 56 environmental groups. “You have an opportunity to leave a legacy. Please do it.”
But board members say moving water around is more complicated than just buying land for storage. Among the obstacles: federal limits on polluted lake water, endangered species that inhabit the areas, size limits on existing canals that would carry water and flood protection requirements.
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“If it was just buying the land and moving the water south, I don’t think we’d all be here today,” said board member Jim Moran.
Crist originally negotiated the $1.75 billion deal with U.S. Sugar to buy all its land in 2008, essentially restructuring a landmark 2000 restoration plan. In 2010, the district cut a new deal to buy just 26,800 acres for $197 million with a 10-year option to buy the remaining land.
In November, following a landslide victory on a constitutional amendment that is expected to raise up to $22 billion over the next 20 years for land and water conservation, environmentalists set their sites on completing the purchase. The issue gained momentum last month when high lake levels forced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin releasing water into the St. Lucie River, raising fears that polluted water could trigger another outbreak of toxic algae that killed fish and made the river off limits in 2013.
Gov. Rick Scott has announced his own budget plans to spend $150 million on restoration projects, but not the land purchase.
“Governor Scott is focused on completely funding existing projects, like the Kissimmee River restoration and the construction of the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs to protect our estuaries and restore the Everglades,” spokeswoman Jeri Bustamante said.
But Scott is willing to look at storage options, she said. The district staff is also now looking at ways to store water, including buying the land, district spokesman Randy Smith said.