Big sugar land buy for Everglades restoration hits road block

To restore the Florida Everglades, supporters of a failed bid to buy U.S. Sugar land say the state needs to purchase more land south of Lake Okeechobee.
To restore the Florida Everglades, supporters of a failed bid to buy U.S. Sugar land say the state needs to purchase more land south of Lake Okeechobee. El Nuevo herald

Calling the deal too costly with too little benefit, the South Florida Water Management District board on Thursday effectively canned a 2010 deal to buy 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar land that it once considered critical to restoring the Everglades and coastal estuaries.

Instead, board members voted to back a $5 billion restoration plan mapped out by Gov. Rick Scott for the next 20 years that does not include the land.

“If we can get $5 billion in state dollars and match that with $5 billion in federal dollars and have $10 billion, to me that is the big huge goal we have to go after right now,” said board chairman Dan O’Keefe.

The vote followed weeks of rowdy protests by environmentalists, topped by a Tallahassee concert headlined by Jimmy Buffett this week demanding the state buy the land. Located just south of Lake Okeechobee, the cane fields would help fill what supporters say is a critical need to store and move water to the parched southern Glades, a major goal in fixing marshes and reviving Florida Bay and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

On Thursday, board members listed a host of problems with the deal, from a purchase price estimated at between $500 and $700 million to restrictions that would prevent more than 11,000 acres being used for restoration over the next five years.

Frustrated with the West Palm Beach-based board’s inaction, environmentalists have shifted their efforts to Tallahassee, where Buffett’s concert this week drew big crowds.

“People along both coasts who have been ravaged by dirty polluted water want a solution,” said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg. “So the nine board members need to demonstrate leadership and come up with a plan.”

To fix the Everglades, more land is needed to store polluted water from Lake Okeechobee. When lake levels get too high and threaten its aging dike, phosphorus-rich water gets flushed down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie to sensitive coastal surrounding estuaries. In 2013, the latest in a periodic string of massive algae blooms, the polluted water killed off seagrasses and oysters in the St. Lucie and left the river unhealthy for swiming for months. Critics say that current plans, including Scott’s proposal to finish 68 projects still incomplete after nearly 15 years, do not include enough storage space.

Riding a landslide November victory on a land preservation amendment, environmentalists hoped to buy the cane fields, which sugar growers tried to rezone late last year for residential and commercial development. Amendment 1 is expected to generate about $650 million its first year.

But to persuade legislators, who are now deciding how to spend the money, an appraisal needs to be done. Up until Thursday, despite requests from environmentalists, the board refused to include the matter on its agenda.

In voting to endorse Scott’s plan, board members all appointed by the governor — and district staff argued that the land would provide far less use than environmentalists claim.

Only 11,000 acres could be used over the next 20 years for restoration under the terms of the deal, district Everglades policy director Tom Teets said. The remainder would be parceled out at 10,000 acres every ten years. Removing infrastructure would be costly, he said, as well as removing six to eight feet of muck to install levees.

“It’s not a simple solution to a complex problem,” O’Keefe said.

But environmentalists, who have packed meetings in recent months, presented a half dozen resolutions from South Florida counties and cities that back the deal and accused board members of over-complicating the matter in an attempt to thwart it.

“It’s a business contract. It’s not part of the U.S. Constitution or cast in stone,” said former St. Lucie County Commissioner Charles Grande. “These things can be reopened to negotiation any time.”

Scott, whose latest election campaign was heavily backed by the sugar industry, has avoided publicly stating his position on the deal. On Thursday, he said he was focused on his own plan when asked about the board’s decision or need for the land.

"I haven't seen the vote,” he said. “What I'm focused on is my budget, a dedicated funding source.”

The district originally hammered out the land deal under former Gov. Charlie Crist, who initially proposed buying all 180,000 acres owned by the U.S. Sugar Corp. But Crist’s grand vision crumbled with the economic downtown.

In 2010, the district bought a small fraction of the land — 26,800 acres for $194 million — and negotiated options for the remaining land. In 2013, the district let expire an initial option to buy the 46,800 acres at $7,400 an acre. The current option would allow the district to buy the land at fair market value.

But without an appraisal from the district, backers say legislators won’t be able to use Amendment 1 money to make the purchase and would instead have to craft another deal for land to store water.

And without land to store water, supporters say Everglades restoration will continue to falter.

“How much faster would you be able to reach [your goals] with the land purchase,” asked Tropical Audubon executive director Laura Reynolds.

Reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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