When Gov. Charlie Crist announced the proposed $1.75-billion buyout of U.S. Sugar, Shannon Estenoz stood on the stage with him representing the state agency that will handle the purchase, the South Florida Water Management District.
Not long ago, Estenoz, 40, was just another environmental activist pushing for Everglades restoration, but then Crist appointed her and four others to the water district board.
When the board voted to stop allowing sugar companies to backpump polluted water into Lake Okeechobee, that prompted U.S. Sugar to pressure Crist for help — and prompted Crist to suggest the buyout.
Last week, the St. Petersburg Times talked with the Key West native to talk about the past, her reaction to the deal, some possible hurdles and what the future might hold for the River of Grass:
When did you start working for Everglades restoration?
I started working on the Everglades proper in 1997 (with the World Wildlife Fund). I testified on behalf of the Everglades Coalition before the U.S. Senate agriculture committee on the Farm Bill. We advised them that the sugar program should be phased out and connected it to a buyout (of the Everglades Agricultural Area).
How crucial do you think this buyout is to making the $10-billion Everglades restoration project work?
It doesn't take much to look at a map and see what this could do.
What did you think when you first heard that Gov. Crist and his staff were negotiating the terms for a possible buyout of the largest sugar grower in the country?
My reaction was shock, quickly followed by admiration for the sheer — well, for the governor's willingness to think so big. And that was rapid-fire followed by the question of how do we make this work?
What hurdles do you foresee for making this deal a reality?
The first is the question of whether we can use this to set up some land-swaps, because we need to get the right footprint to make this work. I hope everybody comes to the table ready to be flexible.
The second is what we can do to help all the communities around the lake (that depended on sugar industry jobs). We need to find a way to keep them whole.
Do you think it's realistic to talk about turning this land that's been farmed for 70 years back into the kind of free-flowing Everglades marsh habitat that existed in the 1800s? Or are the engineers right, and it's too far gone with pollution and other problems to be anything but a water-movement system perpetually managed by humans?
I'm focused on getting that part of the system performing hydrologically the way it did, not ecologically.
Anyway, that area historically was the big sponge. It would take the lake water and spread it out and slow it down and flow it south.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.