Gov. Charlie Crist has changed the game in the Florida Everglades. If his deal to buy out U.S. Sugar Corp. comes to fruition, he will have provided a 292-square-mile cleansing link to the River of Grass and leapfrogged decades of arduous restoration work. The deal, hatched in secret negotiations over the past eight months, already has produced some unimaginable alliances. Everglades crusader Mary Barley was left breathless: "A restored and sustained Everglades is no longer a dream." U.S. Sugar president Robert Buker, long her archenemy, called the deal "a paradigm shift for the Everglades and the environment in Florida, one that would have been inconceivable in the past."
Buker is right, and Crist appointees on the South Florida Water Management District may have paved the way last fall when they agreed, finally, to end the pumping of dirty water from sugar farms back north into Lake Okeechobee. The action infuriated U.S. Sugar lobbyists. Crist then hit them with the idea of selling out, in this case to the public, and negotiations began.
The deal is by no means done. The state and the company have agreed only in concept, and the $1.75-billion price tag needs to be subjected to some intense scrutiny by respected appraisers. The water district claims it can afford the purchase itself by borrowing the money and paying it off by annually redirecting $117-million of existing property tax proceeds. That would mean no general tax dollars for the purchase would come from the state, although taxpayers have been subsidizing the sugar industry for years through unnecessary federal price supports that keep domestic sugar prices far above those on the world market.
If the district is able to afford the purchase alone, then its financial leadership cannot be lost on the Legislature or Congress. Neither has kept its fiscal promises toward Everglades restoration, and a land purchase on this scale should only make the job easier. The current plan calls for aquifer storage wells to apportion water to the Everglades, which is untested and costly. The new land would provide a more natural filter.
If Crist pulls off this land purchase, then members of the Florida congressional delegation and the presidential candidates will need to pay closer attention. Congress surely can come up with the money to keep the restoration program going.
Crist's plan would allow U.S. Sugar to keep farming for six years, which is a reasonable transition period that should also give the state time to help cushion the economic impact to the 1,700 workers and the town of Clewiston. In this case, the state's gain may come at some expense to the town, and the town deserves some consideration.
Environmental groups are still stunned by the news. The sugar farms that border the lake interrupt what used to constitute a natural flow of water southward, making their polluted water an interminable migraine for the Everglades. To remove farming from nearly half that land in one single purchase, then, is to open a gateway that might replenish the Everglades. Crist called it "the critical missing link," and he may some day be proven right.