Four months ago, a pair of Gov. Charlie Crist's aides met with Earthjustice attorney David Guest to talk to him about his successful lawsuit against U.S. Sugar Corp. for polluting Lake Okeechobee. They swore him to secrecy, and then one of the aides unfurled a map and told Guest that U.S. Sugar was negotiating with the state for a total buyout.
"I nearly wet my pants," Guest said.
His second reaction: This is a chance to put everything in the Everglades back the way it was, to convert 187,000 acres of sugarcane and refineries back into marshes full of saw grass, pond apple forests, cypress stands — a true revival of the River of Grass.
But that's not going to happen, say the state and federal officials in charge of the $11-billion Everglades restoration project. The patient is too far gone to take it off life support.
"It sounds lovely to think we could turn it back to the way it was," said Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that would actually buy the land. "But the reality is it's going to be a very constructed, very managed system."
Crist's announcement Tuesday created huge expectations about turning the U.S. Sugar land into what he called "the missing link" in the Everglades restoration project. But as hoopla dies down and the hard work begins on ironing out the details, people are starting to wonder exactly what the state will get if it goes through with the buyout.
Not everybody is happy with what has been revealed so far. Dexter Lehtinen, attorney for the Miccosukkee Tribe of Indians, which lives in the Everglades, is questioning whether the whole thing is "nothing but a publicity stunt."
Lehtinen and the Miccosukkees don't like the possibility that buying U.S. Sugar's land will siphon away all the money the water district intended to spend on other Everglades restoration projects.
Historically, water flowed south through the bends and curves of the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee. When heavy rains filled the lake, the water would spill over the edge into the River of Grass flowing slowly southward to Florida Bay.
The Army Corps of Engineers, in the name of flood control, straightened the Kissimmee and built a dike around the lake, cutting off the flow to the Everglades. Now Everglades National Park starves for water.
Meanwhile, the sugar companies south of the lake routinely backpumped fertilizer-laden water off their fields into the lake, contributing to a pollution load so heavy that not long ago one federal official called it "a chocolate mess." Friends of the Everglades, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Earthjustice and other environmental groups successfully sued to halt that practice, prompting U.S. Sugar to consider a buyout when Crist proposed it.
When the lake gets too full, the corps and the water district flush the excess out through the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River, sending a rush of pollution into delicate estuaries on both coasts, creating toxic algae blooms and killing fish.
Crist said this week that he got an earful about that continuing problem while he was campaigning for governor in 2006. He's hopeful that acquiring U.S. Sugar's land south of the lake will give the corps and the water district a way to drain the lake southward, the way it used to.
In the mid 1990s, the corps examined the idea of creating a "flow way" south of the lake and rejected it for the same three reasons Wehle now says it won't work:
• The lake is too polluted with phosphorous, so pouring its water into the Everglades would damage what's left.
• The land is polluted, too. Seventy years of fertilizing the cane fields has left the ground as packed with phosphorous as the lake. The Everglades is supposed to be a low-phosphorous ecosystem.
"Every time you put water on farmed land that's had an excess of phosphorous on it, you get cattails," said Herb Zebuth, a retired state Department of Environmental Protection expert on the lake. "That's not the Everglades. The Everglades is saw grass."
• As the farmers drained it, a lot of the muck dried up and blew away. The farmland is now 20 feet below what it once was, Wehle said, ruining the gentle slope that once made the River of Grass run.
"If you flowed water into that land, it would just sit there," she said.
So instead of tearing down one wall of the dike around the lake and letting the water flow freely southward, Wehle and corps officials say they expect to build large water treatment areas — artificial wetlands that can clean the pollution — as well as big reservoirs to hold the water for use when it's needed by Everglades National Park.
"Think of this as a facility to restore … Everglades National Park and Florida Bay," Wehle said. "It will facilitate their restoration."
There are other potential problems, too — pesticides, for instance. When the state re-flooded farm fields around Central Florida's Lake Apopka as part of a restoration project in 1998, more than 600 birds wound up poisoned. They were killed by pesticide residue that contaminated the site.
Similar pesticide contamination cropped up the last time the state bought a sugar farm, the 50,000-acre Talisman plantation, purchased for $133-million in 1999 from the St. Joe Co. As with Talisman, if any toxic waste is discovered on U.S. Sugar's land, U.S. Sugar will have to pay to clean it up, Wehle said.
One potential obstacle, the price tag, is fairly settled. Though the state will dispatch three appraisers to check the value of U.S. Sugar's holdings, eight months of secret negotiations between Crist's staff and the company set the maximum the state is willing to pay: $1.75-billion.
Crist and U.S. Sugar officials hailed the potential buyout as a way to jump-start the stalled Everglades restoration project. But the Miccosukkees and others are wondering whether it will siphon off all the money for construction of the other elements of the restoration plan — some of which might have provided more immediate results than anything to be built on U.S. Sugar's land.
"I think we keep doing the expensive, easy thing and losing sight of what's important," said Terry Rice, a retired Army colonel who was in charge of the corps in Florida when planning on the Everglades project began. "If the purchase occurs, most all attention … will be focused on this area at the expense of other vital restoration projects."
Despite all the questions about the U.S. Sugar buyout, Guest, the Earthjustice attorney, contends it's too soon to start fighting over what to do with land the state doesn't own yet.
"We're arguing about the omelet recipe," he said, "and we haven't bought the eggs yet."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]