U.S. Sugar Corp. executives were frantic. Environmental groups had sued to stop the company from dumping polluted water in Lake Okeechobee, and a judge agreed it was illegal. Then a state agency voted to forbid the practice. So just before Thanksgiving the company sent two of the most influential lobbyists in Tallahassee, J. M. "Mac" Stipanovich and Brian Ballard, to meet with Gov. Charlie Crist. If U.S. Sugar couldn't continue dumping farm runoff into the lake, the company would be ruined, they told Crist. "I have an idea,'' Crist replied. What if we buy you out? Doesn't that solve everybody's problems?
Crist's idea was so wild it took everyone's breath away. But the deal Crist proposed, formally unveiled Tuesday, is now being hailed as the answer to jump-starting the stalled $10-billion Everglades restoration project.
"I've been to three world's fairs and a goat roping contest, and I've never been a part of anything quite like this," Stipanovich said.
Although many details of the $1.75-billion deal still must be worked out before it closes in November, the bottom line is this: U.S. Sugar would continue farming its land — about 187,000 acres, slightly bigger than the land mass of Pinellas County — for six more years, then shut everything down and hand it over to the state. It would be the largest conservation purchase in state history.
Part of the land would be turned into a series of reservoirs and pollution filtering areas that would restore the flow of water between the lake and Everglades National Park. Part of it could be swapped for more desirable land for the project.
But more than 100,000 acres of it could be turned back to farming — perhaps growing crops for use as fuel, said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole.
"I don't need 187,000 acres for environmental restoration," said Sole — an assertion that was already stirring opposition among environmental activists who have long wanted to restore the broad expanse of the River of Grass.
"We want the whole schmear," said David Guest of Earthjustice. "We want everything from the canals to the levees and beyond."
According to Crist, the key to getting the deal started was a federal lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Florida Wildlife Federation, challenging the practice of backpumping farm runoff containing phosphorous, pesticides and other chemicals into the lake.
The suit contended that backpumping triggered massive algae blooms and compromised drinking water quality for small towns such as Pahokee and South Bay that draw their supply from the lake.
In December 2006, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled that backpumping violates the Clean Water Act. Then in August 2007, the South Florida Water Management District — the defendant in the case — voted 4-3 to end the practice. The four votes came from Crist appointees.
Sugar executives viewed the decision as devastating, so they assigned the lobbyists to ask Crist where the industry stood. Crist, on his way back from a November event in Orlando and accompanied by his chief of staff, stopped by Ballard's office in a white-columned house a few blocks from the Governor's Mansion.
"I knew what they wanted and that our administration wasn't excited about embracing any more," Crist said. So he figured that "maybe it was time to take a quantum leap forward."
Crist said that when he first proposed buying everything U.S. Sugar owns, "originally there was some surprise" among even his staff. "But the more people thought about it, they thought, why not?"
U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker said when he heard about Crist's idea, "I just about passed out. That's a pretty big deal in my world." But he knew Crist wasn't kidding: "When he gets his jaw set, he's pretty persuasive, and he appeared to have his jaw set."
During the next eight months of negotiations, no more than about 20 people knew all the details of what was going on. The negotiations were conducted in such secrecy that not even federal officials leading the Everglades restoration knew about it before Monday, according to Stuart Appelbaum, in charge of the project for the Army Corps of Engineers.
When state and federal experts were first putting together the restoration plan in the late 1990s, this kind of land purchase was "not something that was ever contemplated or suggested," Appelbaum said. As a result of Tuesday's announcement, "the whole landscape has changed."
Company executives called the decision to sell "bittersweet," since it likely would mean the end of their 77-year-old business in South Florida. U.S. Sugar produces 700,000 tons of sugar a year, or about 8 percent of all sugar produced in the nation. The company, which operates its own railroad, employs 1,700 workers, most of whom live in Clewiston, "the sweetest town in America."
The purchase of U.S. Sugar's land would help solve two problems at once, Appelbaum said. It can reconnect Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades and halt the flow of pollution from the lake to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, he said.
Historically, the Everglades functioned as a safety valve for the lake. When heavy rains north of the lake sent swollen currents down the Kissimmee River, the river flowed into the lake and filled it until it spilled over. The spillover then slowly flowed through the River of Grass south to Florida Bay.
But in the name of flood control, the corps straightened the Kissimmee's bends, turning it into a funnel for pollution from the farms and ranches north of the lake. And the corps built a dike around the rim of the lake, cutting off flow to the Everglades, which now routinely starves for water.
Meanwhile, the lake filled with phosphorous, which causes algae blooms. Whenever it got too full, the corps and the water district would send the excess flowing eastward through the St. Lucie River and westward through the Caloosahatchee River. The pollution from the lake wreaked havoc in those rivers' estuaries, harming fishing and tourism on both coasts.
But with the U.S. Sugar land in state hands, instead of releasing water into the estuaries the water could again flow south toward the Everglades, Appelbaum said.
To make it work would require more than simply tearing down the dike, because 70 years of farming has drastically depleted the soil there, he said, and the corps and the state would have to find a way to clean the pollution from the lake's water first.
"It will clearly need treatment," Appelbaum said. All in all, he said, "we've got a lot of planning to do."
In fact, the purchase would have multiple effects on Everglades restoration. It would probably mean the end of one of the plan's most controversial elements, the 333 deep wells that were supposed to hold 1-billion gallons of water a mile underground. No one knew if that part of the plan would crack the limestone around the aquifer.
The U.S. Sugar deal "gives us the flexibility and the creativity to have a better restoration," said Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.
For the water district, part of the allure of the deal is that the $1.75-billion price tag would not cost taxpayers additional money. The district, which serves 7.5-million people in 16 counties, would take $50-million from cash reserves and cover the rest with long-term notes called "certificates of participation." Paying off the debt and interest over 30 years would take $117-million annually, with the payments coming from property taxes already assessed in the district.
The catch, though, is that the purchase would eat up any money the state planned to spend on other Everglades projects, said chairman Eric Buermann.
That means the federal government would likely have to come up with any other construction money — something Congress has failed to do since approving the Everglades project in 2000. Last year Congress finally passed a bill authorizing further spending, but so far no money has been approved.
Republican Sen. Mel Martinez is among the members of Florida's congressional delegation who has been frustrated by a lack of adequate funding and interest at the federal level. But he said the U.S. Sugar deal should help.
"If anything, it will show the tremendous commitment of the state and will only give impetus to the federal efforts," he said.
It would also burnish Crist's environmental credentials after the widespread controversy over his change of heart last week about offshore drilling. "This will put Gov. Crist in the books as the Everglades governor," predicted Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.
Times staff writers Kris Hundley, Wes Allison and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.