MIAMI — The proposed purchase of vast tracts of U.S. Sugar Corp. farmland holds such great promise for restoring the Everglades that it would be a mistake to order work to resume on a project begun before the deal was struck, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno rejected a request by the Miccosukee Indian Tribe, whose members live in the Everglades, that he order construction to continue on a giant reservoir in western Palm Beach County. Work was halted on the project in May while the state contended with another lawsuit.
Since then, Gov. Charlie Crist announced a deal hailed by environmental groups to buy 187,000 acres from U.S. Sugar for $1.75-billion. The acquisition would simultaneously end a key source of pollutants that have severely damaged the Everglades and create a huge new area for restoration efforts.
Moreno, who oversees a 20-year-old federal lawsuit aimed at rescuing the Everglades, declined to order the unfinished reservoir to be built, in part because of the planned sugar buyout.
"Logically speaking, the most successful long-term solution to Everglades pollution may be to buy out the polluters, and currently that option appears viable," Moreno said in an order signed late Wednesday.
But Moreno cautioned that if the sugar deal falls through — "past promises have not been timely kept," he wrote — the judge would not hesitate to use his authority to ensure Everglades restoration isn't abandoned.
An attorney for the South Florida Water Management District said at a court hearing this week that the sugar purchase would be jeopardized if Moreno ordered work to resume on the 25-square-mile reservoir, which has already cost $200-million. The next phase was estimated to add $300-million to that price tag.