On Monday, the U.S. Sugar Corporation agreed to the state of Florida’s offer buy 180,000 acres of its land for $1.34 billion. The move is aimed at helping restore what is left of the Everglades, and Gov. Charlie Crist has been crowing about it for months. But at this point, the deal looks like a much better one for U.S. Sugar than for fans of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP), now valued at $12 billion and surely growing.
Originally, the state planned to buy U.S. Sugar’s land and facilities for $1.75 bilion. But last month, those terms were changed. The agricultural giant got to keep its mill and rail lines, and under a $50-an-acre lease-back agreement–a coup for U.S. Sugar–product production will continue.
The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), which administrates CERP, has until next Tuesday to agree to the terms and finalize the contract.
Here’s how this is all supposed to work:
Fresh (in theory) water from Lake Okeechobee runs south to the Everglades through channels (a “river of grass”) currently being farmed by U.S. Sugar. When this happens, the Glades are able to provide most of South Florida’s fresh water needs. When it doesn’t, the entire southern portion of the state–including builders and environmentalists alike– is in trouble. The Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach metrosprawl is now home to almost six million people, with approximately 13.8 jabrillion tourists on hand at any time.
The activities of U.S. Sugar dump phosphorus into the water flowing south toward Big Cypress Swamp. Phosporus itself is not poisonous, but its presence allows for the flourishing of cattails and exotic species of algae and other plants in a way that changes the ecosystem dramatically. The net result is a drastic lowering of the freshwater table–and a decrease in water available to South Florida’s residents.
Had Florida grabbed both U.S. Sugar’s land and its facilities, this would have paved the way for the SFWMD to move forward with its proposal to turn farmland back into channels though which fresh water could flow unimpeded into the southern part of the watershed. But under the revised terms, U.S. Sugar will continue farming all but the 10,000 acres the SFWMD will be given to work with. Given that it’s easier to move a body’s entire blood supply through an aorta than it is to squeeze it through a brachial artery, restoration won’t proceed at nearly the pace it otherwise could have.
Then there is the matter of financing the project. The SFWMD’s leadership consists of appointees, not elected officials, so they may not really give a dead gopher tortoise whether the public wants to be soaked to the tune of billions during a bad economy. In any event, the agency says it will fund the land grab with bonds, something of an ambitious strategy given what’s been happening in the markets lately.
That, in part, is why the presence of the Lawrence Group, which has offered rival bids on the land at which U.S. Sugar has balked, remains a background complication. Lawrence wants to buy the land, keep sugar in production, and sell to the state only that land it needs for restoration, and it continues to pound away at how much money taxpayers would be spared if it were allowed to be the buyer. These people sound like the traditional out-of-state corporate greedheads that have run amok Florida for years now, always ready with a nice-sounding monetary quick fix which in the end will bring further ruin to the state–its ecology and its economy both.
The federal government, by the way, is supposed to be a one-to-one partner with Florida with respect to funding Everglades restoration projects. But that deal was sealed when there existed a government surplus, which seems to have evaporated as a result of some other environmental project rumored to be underway for the past five years or so in the Middle East. Even the prescence of Jeb Bush, the president’s brother, in the governor’s office didn’t help. So the locals have been outspending the feds two to one, and most work is considerably behind schedule, some of it on the order of about a decade.
Anyway, here’s a diagram of what the SFWMD ultimately hopes to do in South Florida in terms of water recovery and storage implemetation under CERP guidelines.