WEST PALM BEACH — Florida water managers can move ahead with financing plans for a historic $536 million deal to buy land from U.S. Sugar Corp. for Everglades restoration, a judge ruled Wednesday.
The order allows the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees restoration efforts for the state, to move forward with plans to buy 73,000 acres of farmland from the company to build reservoirs and water treatment marshes intended to clean water and restore natural flow through the Everglades. The deal also leaves open the option for the state to buy more land from the nation's largest cane sugar producer. Total restoration is estimated to cost billions.
Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Donald Hafele noted in his order that the district proved the proposal has a "valid public purpose."
The wetlands have been damaged after years of dikes, dams and diversions to make way for farms and development, and the region is now polluted with urban runoff and fertilizers.
U.S. Sugar's main rival, Florida Crystals, and the Miccosukee Indians, who live in the Everglades, had argued the deal was an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars and could further delay Everglades restoration. They sought to stop financing for bonds the water district wants to issue to pay for the deal.
"I'm obviously excited about the judge's ruling," said Michael Sole, secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. "Without question, this is going to allow us to move forward with the historic acquisition."
The Miccosukee Tribe said it would likely appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. However, the tribe also called it a partial victory because the judge did not approve the amount the water district was seeking.
Florida Crystals said it was considering an appeal.