June 25, 2008

Florida Deal With Sugar Grower Will Help Restore Everglades

Two sides that rarely agree on anything celebrated Tuesday a "monumental" but still tentative $1.7 billion buyout that would put the nation's largest sugar grower out of business in six years but fill a gaping hole in Florida's long-stalled Everglades restoration.

The deal, expected to be final by Nov. 30, is good for the environment _ the nearly 300 square miles of sugar land is "the holy grail," one Everglades advocate said. And it's good for U.S. Sugar Corp., which will get $1.7 billion and six years of rent-free operations with the state as its landlord.

In return, Florida gets a chance to reinvigorate the stalled restoration of the Everglades, end years of bickering over pollution by "Big Sugar" and _ years from now _ get more much-needed clean water flowing into the River of Grass.

"I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, or the people of Florida, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration," Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday, likening the announcement to the creation of America's first national park, Yellowstone.

The buyout deal has been in secret negotiations for months.

U.S. Sugar President Robert Buker said he was "saddened" at the thought of ending the company's 80-year history of farming in the Everglades but also heartened that the deal could help resolve some of the state's longest, and most contentious, environmental conflicts.

"This is a watershed event in national conservation history and a paradigm shift for the Everglades and the environment in Florida," he said.

Environmentalists were thrilled _ even though they acknowledge it puts much of the Everglades restoration plan in limbo and may kill some projects altogether.

"This has been the holy grail," said Mark Kraus, senior vice president of the Everglades Foundation. "I really wouldn't have believed I'd see this in my lifetime."

That "missing link" Crist referred to was glaringly omitted from the original 2000 state-federal plan to restore the Everglades. Any connection between Lake Okeechobee and the remnant marshes of the Everglades had long been severed by sugar fields in a sprawling 400,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area.

Under the proposal, U.S. Sugar would sell its 187,000 acres of sugar fields to the South Florida Water Management District but continue farming for another six years, or possibly more if both sides agree, before shutting down.

The purchase also covers 200 miles of railroad, two refineries and literally all company assets, Buker said. "It includes the half-eaten pastrami sandwich in the refrigerator."

The district, which oversees Everglades restoration for the state, then hopes to swap tracts with other growers to create a massive swath south of Lake Okeechobee that wouldn't necessarily recreate a natural "flow way" to marshes but could target restoration's two biggest problems: There isn't water to revive the parched River of Grass, and what there is remains too polluted.

No one has drawn up specific plans yet, but a likely scenario involves massively expanding reservoirs and the 44,000 acres of treatment marshes that the state is building, at a cost of more than $1.2 billion. The marshes scrub farm runoff to the pristine water quality level needed to protect the sensitive Everglades system.

Tom Olliff, the district's assistant executive director, and Michael Sole, the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, agreed the deal would dramatically change the blueprint of Everglades restoration, a $10.8 billion plan that Congress approved in 2000 but has not fully funded.

"There will be some projects you don't need to do," Olliff said.

Sole said the deal would have the added benefit of easing pressure to pump polluted water out of Lake Okeechobee to protect its deteriorating dike, discharges that have choked estuaries on both coasts in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers with repeated, damaging algae blooms.

"I think we may rethink the storage and the flow of water," Sole said.

Environmental groups hope state leaders can now cancel plans for 300 expensive underground storage wells, a key component of the current plan that they have long complained is an unproven concept that could contaminate drinking water sources.

Stuart Applebaum, deputy of restoration program management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is co-managing the restoration with the district, called the potential purchase "very exciting" but agreed it will likely demand revisions in the overall restoration plan.

"It gives us a lot of more possibilities we didn't have before," he said.

But the buyout also comes with potential large tradeoffs for the restoration effort. Revising the plan and waiting six years to take ownership will almost certainly delay restoration projects that are already running years behind. And the financing scheme may put much of the state-funded work to improve the Glades on hold indefinitely.

The district proposes to shift money from ongoing projects to bankroll the land buy, and borrow an additional $500 million that would be repaid from the agency's routine tax collections.

Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida, praised the deal but also expects the land buy to become the state's signature Glades project for the next decade.

"It will suck up all the money and all the engineering attention," he said.

Others hope the deal will coax a reluctant Congress to free up promised federal money for the restoration. The federal government had pledged to split the restoration costs with Florida, but so far state taxpayers have borne the brunt of the bill.

The deal allows for the possibility of selling some of U.S. Sugar's assets to remaining growers _ most notably a state-of-the art complex to process sugar and citrus that the company spent $100 million to open just four years ago.

District officials said they arrived at the price of $1.75 billion based on nearby farmland values, a value Buker said worked out to about $9,400 an acre. Ruth Clements, who heads the district's land acquisition office, said the state will require three independent appraisals confirming the price.

U.S. Sugar officials said the state had tried to buy parcels of its land in the past but had never before bid for the entire company. Judy Sanchez, a company spokeswoman, said the state's offer came "basically out of the blue," but Buker credited Crist for pushing a proposal negotiated by a handful of people on the governor's staff and at the water district.

Still, despite lingering questions, environmentalists were celebrating what many called a landmark deal with a longtime enemy.

"There are a lot of moving part to this, and the devil is in the detaills," said John Adornato of the National Parks Conservation Association, but "this is like 2000 again with everybody holding hands."


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