Everglades activists: U.S. Sugar deal means faster restoration

Jun 25, 2008

Palm Beach Post--June 24, 2008

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

A $1.75 billion deal to give taxpayers control over 187,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee would dramatically cut the cost and time it takes to restore the Everglades, environmentalists said this afternoon.

United States Sugar Corp. has tentatively signed off on a plan to end its operations in the next six years and give the South Florida Water Management District control of its land and other assets, including its sugar mill and rail lines.
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The land can hold and cleanse as much as 325 billion gallons of water, which would be used to restore the Everglades and aid South Florida’s water supply, according to the non-profit Everglades Foundation.

It will also reduce the amount of noxious Lake Okeechobee water that is dumped into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers by 85 percent, and eliminate nearly all pumping of Glades farm runoff into the lake, the group said.

“We really consider this plan a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said foundation Chief Executive Officer Kurt Fordham said in a telephone news conference. “This is something the environmental community has been clamoring for for years.”

Fordham estimated that the deal would shave billions from the $10.9 billion Everglades restoration plan, whose price tag has been threatening to expand to $15 billion or more. The land purchase would eliminate the need for the construction of hundreds of expensive, untested storage wells, one of the most costly parts of the restoration plan, the group said.

Water managers and U.S. Sugar said they will negotiate for the next 75 days and hope to close on the deal by Nov. 30. The water management district’s governing board will meet next week to discuss the purchase.

Fordham said his group plans to keep a close eye on the negotiations, including land swaps that may be made with other property owners in the area.

“We want to see the fine print on how this deal will unfold,” he said.

The environmental group said it is not pushing state leaders to buy out other major landholders in the area, including Florida Crystals.

“Our desire is not to go after the next target and put them out of business,” Fordham said.