July 1, 2008

Water District Votes to Start Purchase of Sugar Land for ‘Glades

By David Fleshler, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Jun. 30--Despite the fears of rural communities of a body blow to their economies, the South Florida Water Management District gave unanimous approval Monday to the blockbuster plan for acquiring U.S. Sugar and using the company's land to help restore the Everglades.

The district's governing board voted 6-0 to begin detailed negotiations with the company and to spend money for appraisals and environmental assessments, with the deal expected to close by November.

Gov. Charlie Crist announced last week that the state had made an agreement in principle to acquire the company and its land around Lake Okeechobee, opening up vast new possibilities for restoring South Florida's famous but ailing wilderness.

Although general terms of the $1.75 billion purchase have been negotiated through the governor's office, the acquisition must be made by the water management district, which oversees drainage, water supplies and Everglades restoration. Carol Wehle, the water management district's executive director, called Monday "a very historic and exciting day."

The vote prompted a burst of applause from the audience, consisting largely of members of environmental groups.

"This acquisition can ultimately provide tremendous benefits for both natural and human environments," said Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club.

With the governing board's approval in hand, the district's staff will begin the complicated work of assessing the value of the nearly 300 square miles of land and setting up financing. The board approved $5 million to pay for outside appraisals and other elements of the deal. The district's financial staff will hold meetings with investors and bond-rating agencies to prepare details of a 30-year financing plan.

Terms are expected to be ready for the governing board's approval by September, with actual transfer of assets taking place in November.

Some board members expressed concern about the cost of the deal and the economic impact on communities around Lake Okeechobee, which would lose a major employer. During a public comment period, elected officials from inland communities pleaded with the board to take the damage to their economies into account.

"No plans have been put forth to show how in excess of 3,000 jobs will be replaced," said Kevin McCarthy, a Hendry County commissioner. He said local home sales already have stopped. "By your announcement, you have devalued our homes and businesses," he said. "Are we lesser citizens because we have chosen to live in farming communities?"

The Miccosukee Tribe also objected, saying the deal could delay Everglades restoration projects already in the works.

"We think this is an impulse buy," said Claudio Riedi, attorney for the tribe. "We need to make sure that all the projects that are on the table are completed."

The acquisition could speed Everglades restoration by solving a difficult problem: how to store enough water for dry periods. Shannon Estenoz, vice chairwoman of the district's governing board, said this could mean quicker completion of major elements of the restoration, such as removing the canals and levees of the southern Everglades and restoring the water flow under Tamiami Trail. But she said this can be done quickly only if the federal government meets its commitment to pay half of the costs with the state.

"We're really going to need the federal government to come to the table in a really big way," she said.

The deal hinges on the district's ability to acquire more land through swaps to link the lake to the Everglades. Initial plans call for the land to be used for water storage, with a deep reservoir near the lake and wetlands connecting it to the rest of the Everglades.

The acquisition would allow the restoration of the historic link from Lake Okeechobee, allowing more fresh water to reach the parched wetlands of Everglades National Park. It would allow a dramatic reduction of damaging discharges of fresh water from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. It would cleanse the water of phosphorus and take pressure off the lake's aging Herbert Hoover Dike.

"With the political momentum that this proposal has, there are going to be a lot of people invested in making this happen right," said Charles Lee, advocacy director of the environmental group Audubon of Florida. "This is legacy material."

David Fleshler can be reached at [email protected] or 954-356-4535.

Learn sugar's history Take a look at the history of the sugar cane industry in South Florida through an interactive photo gallery at Sun-Sentinel.com/sugar. Also take an interactive tour through the Everglades and gain insight into Florida's unique 'river of grass'


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