WASHINGTON — Gov. Charlie Crist's top emissaries arrived at the Capitol on Wednesday to brief Florida's congressional delegation on his massive buyout of U.S. Sugar's operations in the Everglades.
They ended up stepping into an alligator's nest.
Despite Crist's stated goal of buying nearly 200,000 acres from U.S. Sugar to speed up the rehabilitation of the Everglades, a goal the Florida delegation overwhelmingly supports, Republicans and Democrats alike were clearly peeved at having been kept in the dark until the deal was announced — especially given the federal government's key role in the $20-billion Everglades restoration project.
During a testy, two-hour exchange, several lawmakers accused the state of failing to adequately consider how the deal might affect the communities, many of them poor, around Lake Okeechobee. Others questioned the $1.75-billion price tag.
"You could have bought out every stockholder 1½ to two times for this amount of money," U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, a North Florida Democrat, scolded.
Several also said they worried that secrecy surrounding the deal and the lack of federal input, especially from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, could jeopardize future federal funding by creating the perception that Florida can handle it alone.
Congress recently appropriated $2-billion to the corps for planning and engineering of key first-stage Everglades projects, but billions more will be needed.
Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Palm Beach County, said one congressional appropriator recently told him, "It looks like y'all have your Everglades problems worked out."
Michael Sole, Florida's secretary of environmental protection, and Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, told lawmakers some of the land will be used to build a huge reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
The reservoir, which would take 15 years to build, would help regulate flows into the Everglades during periods of drought and flood, and may also be used for drinking water.
Members acknowledged a reservoir may save money and aid the environment by reducing the need for a plan to drill into the aquifer and use it for drinking water storage.
But Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, said the aquifer storage plan, which is under way, will have to be completely re-engineered. "It's clear the deal is now facing the consequences of the secrecy in which it was negotiated," Putnam said.
Sole promised to keep the members updated in the future.
Meanwhile, Dale Brill, director of the state Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, assured the delegation that he already is trying to determine how best to use the property, existing railroad and other assets not needed for Everglades restoration. He said he plans to work with residents in the affected communities on job training, housing and other issues.
Several members were less than satisfied. "Impact on the communities is not six years from now," Putnam said. "It was the morning this was announced, the morning that housing values collapsed and people began restricting their spending, because they don't know what their income is going to be."