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U.S. Sugar deal crucial for Everglades, group says

This week marks a turning point in Florida's effort to restore the Everglades.

The state agency in charge, the South Florida Water Management District, will decide today whether to buy 181,000 acres of U.S. Sugar's land for $1.34-billion.

The deal stems from a 2007 water district decision to halt a long-standing sugar industry practice of back-pumping polluted water into Lake Okeechobee. That prompted U.S. Sugar to appeal for help to Gov. Charlie Crist, who responded with the proposed buyout.

The Everglades Foundation, a small but influential environmental group focused on restoration, aided the ensuing secret negotiations by supplying the state with studies about how the sugar cane land could be used to help with restoring the River of Grass.

The group showed how it could be used for a series of manmade wetlands that could clean polluted water from the lake as it flows down Everglades National Park, replacing more complicated and expensive components in the current restoration plan.

The resulting contract before the water district today has drawn opposition from some lawmakers, as well as the Florida Farm Bureau.

Even Kirk Fordham, the politically connected CEO of the Everglades Foundation, agrees that the contract has its flaws. But in the end, he said he hopes the state will wind up owning the land. He recently shared his take on the deal with the St. Petersburg Times.

Why is it so important to acquire U.S. Sugar's land?

It's important to look at the bigger picture. The whole idea behind this grandiose initiative is to acquire land everyone once thought was out of reach. (With the sugar land in hand) you can now design a restoration plan that's much simpler, more natural and less expensive. You'd be creating a dynamic ecosystem. We know that it'll work. It's just a matter of getting the land.

What's wrong with the deal that's on the table?

With the leaseback provision, sugar could be growing on that land for seven years or more before the state gets it. We have some real problems with that. And mining activity would be permitted right in the middle of the footprint for restoration. We've been pushing the Crist administration to make amendments to the contract and make it a better deal.

What's the reaction of state officials to your pushing for an amended contract?

I think they recognize they got as far as they could with the U.S. Sugar management team. They believe they got the best deal they could at the bargaining table. (But a vote to reject the contract) could send the negotiators back to the negotiating table. … My hope is that for once these folks who have done business around Lake Okeechobee for so long will agree to a plan that accommodates the economy and agriculture, but keeps in mind that if we don't restore the Everglades we're not going to have these industries anymore anyway, since there won't be a water supply. It's in everyone's interest to come to the table.

What happens if the state fails to acquire that land?

Unless the state gets that land, the likelihood is that U.S. Sugar will parcel it out a little at a time to developers and other agricultural interests and we will have lost forever our chance to acquire it all at once. So if it's a choice of this deal today or no deal forever, I think we should take the deal.

What about the concerns about the effect on U.S. Sugar's work force and all the lost jobs in the cities around Lake Okeechobee?

We can't rely solely on the sugar industry to keep people employed. If we don't fix the Everglades, we lose many more jobs in fishing, boating and the tourist industry, because they all depend on a healthy ecosystem. (He pointed out that a new flow-way across U.S. Sugar's land could replace the current practice of releasing excess water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, which has repeatedly led to pollution-fueled algae blooms on both coasts.) Who wants to buy waterfront property when the water is green and it smells?

U.S. Sugar deal crucial for Everglades, group says 12/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 15, 2008 2:22pm]
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