Florida lawmakers may be on the verge of making a mistake of historic proportions by letting a splendid opportunity to aid Everglades restoration and clean up waters east and west of Lake Okeechobee slip through their fingers this session.
This may sound like hyperbole, but it isn’t.
If anything, it understates the stakes involved for Florida’s environmental future as a deadline to buy land that could be used as a reservoir to store and clean polluted water gets nearer while the state dawdles.
▪ The land is available. The state has an option to buy 46,800 acres from U.S. Sugar under an agreement reached in 2010, when land values were low because of the housing collapse and the recession. The deal calls for a base price of $7,400 per acre or fair market value, whichever is higher.
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▪ The acreage is a key piece of the Everglades restoration puzzle. The low-lying areas south of the lake would serve as reservoirs to filter out pollution and renew the flow of cleaner water that historically fed the River of Grass. Also: It would reduce the need to release polluted discharges east and west through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers that wind up fouling coastal estuaries on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
▪ For once, it’s not about the money. When they approved Amendment 1 by 75 percent last year, Florida voters said (shouted, actually) that they want to buy land for conservation purposes and created a fund with more than enough money to pay the estimated $350 million purchase price.
▪ The clock is ticking. The option to buy from U.S. Sugar expires in October. Realistically, the money must be allocated earlier to leave time for proper valuations and all the other details involved in such a massive land purchase.
▪ Politics is getting in the way. U.S. Sugar, a powerful lobby in Tallahassee, is no longer interested in selling. Once, when the corporation needed cash, they thought it was a great idea; now they say it’s a waste of money. The Legislature, as a result, isn’t making the purchase a priority. A Senate proposal on how to spend Amendment 1 money, released on March 19, includes no funds for that purpose. Neither does a House proposal unveiled two days earlier. (It does include money for purposes other than buying land, which would seem to thwart voter intent, but that’s fodder for another day.)
▪ There is no magic bullet to save the Everglades. This land purchase won’t do it, nor will any other single action. But Florida can’t afford to pass up this deal because it’s vital to the overall solution. This month, the University of Florida released a 143-page report confirming that “the current U.S. Sugar land purchase option” is among the must-have pieces of land that a winning environmental strategy requires.
Commendably, Gov. Scott and lawmakers have supported hundreds of millions in state expenditures over the years for the restoration effort. But they need to step up again, before the option to buy the land expires.
It will assuredly be more expensive later.
If restoration experts are right, there’s no alternative to using the land south of Lake Okeechobee to clean the Everglades. It’s been obvious for years, which is why the Editorial Board supported the move as far back as 2008, when a much-larger purchase involving much more money was envisaged.
Sooner or later, it has to happen, so why not now? The money is available. The land is available. The time is right.
The only thing missing is leadership.