By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
In an ambitious maneuver to help restore the Everglades, the state of Florida has struck a tentative deal to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. for $1.75 billion and turn many of its 187,000 acres of farmland into reservoirs.
The plan, described by Gov. Charlie Crist as the largest conservation purchase in Florida's history, envisions restoring some of the natural flow of water to the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee.
Crist, who has been mentioned as a possible running mate for presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, made the announcement Tuesday after months of secret negotiations with the sugar company. He called the purchase "as monumental" as the founding of Yellowstone National Park. The patchwork of farmland totals 292 square miles, about equal to the land area of New York City's five boroughs.
The surprise effort is aimed at halting the degradation of the Everglades, which at 1.5 million acres is the third-largest national park in the lower 48 states, behind Death Valley and Yellowstone. Over the years, water from areas north of the massive marsh has been diverted to the fast-growing cities of South Florida and for agriculture, and pollutants from sewage and farming have flowed in.
Restoration has been a state and federal priority for years and is the goal of a troubled $11 billion program that, until now, had envisioned the construction of hundreds of high-tech wells and huge aquifers in an elaborate re-engineering of South Florida's hydrology. Critics have called the plan impractical and say it has little relationship to the pre-development ecosystem. The project has fallen behind schedule since it was approved eight years ago.
The sugar company buyout puts a new and simpler option on the table: Water can flow from the lake into filtering marshes. The cleaner water could eventually be sent onward into the "sea of grass" at the southern end of the peninsula. A direct lake-glades connection, even one comprising levee-lined retention areas, has long been a dream of environmentalists.
"You've got to do something to transition lake water to the Everglades," said Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the independent agency that supervises the network of canals, levees and waterways in the lower third of the state. She said the primary goal of the U.S. Sugar buyout will be Everglades restoration, rather than providing water for sprawling urban areas in South Florida.
"It will be a structured, managed system, but it will definitely connect Lake Okeechobee with the Everglades," she said.
Under the deal, which still has to be negotiated, the South Florida Water Management District, an independent state agency with its own taxing authority, will make the purchase in part with property taxes earmarked for Everglades restoration. Some company assets could be sold to other sugar companies, leaving some cane fields and orange groves still under cultivation. Because the U.S. Sugar holdings are scattered, the state will try to swap land with other sugar cane companies to create a single corridor for water to flow into the reservoirs and on to the Everglades.
"Acquiring this large swath south of Lake Okeechobee will be an historic turning point for the largest watershed project in the world," Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said.
Environmentalists, who only days earlier had been infuriated by Crist's reversal of his longtime opposition to offshore oil drilling, were thrilled and surprised by the pact, which was first reported on Monday by the Palm Beach Post.
"It was a really well-kept secret. I think the Pentagon would be jealous of how well it was kept," said Susan Kennedy, executive director of the Everglades Coalition.
U.S. Sugar is based in Clewiston, "America's sweetest town," on the west bank of Lake Okeechobee. The company was founded in 1931 by auto executive Charles Stewart Mott, who saw riches in the muck that bordered the lake. By the end of World War II, it was the biggest sugar company in the United States. Today it employs 1,700 people and produces 700,000 tons of cane sugar annually.
But the industry has been blamed for many of South Florida's environmental problems. Agriculture has dramatically changed the ancient landscape, and fertilizers have polluted the water.
The cane fields stretch to the horizon along the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee. Instead of flowing south to the Everglades, much of the water from the lake -- heavy with phosphorous and other chemicals -- is diverted to the west and east coasts of Florida by the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. The state hopes to clean up those waterways as a result of the buyout.
It is unclear how the state can soften the economic impact of the company's demise. Employees will have six years to make the transition to other work. But at a news event Tuesday announcing the tentative agreement, U.S. Sugar chief executive Robert Buker said the deal is bittersweet.
"We built a company that right now is the pillar of the agriculture community in Florida," he said. "Because of that, I stand here today with mixed feelings."
U.S. Sugar Senior Vice President Robert Coker said the plan originated with Crist last fall in a meeting with company representatives in Tallahassee when the governor made a statement seemingly out of the blue: "I just think we ought to buy you out."
Said Coker: "I was very surprised. I've been dealing with Everglades issues for 27 years with this company, and nobody's ever taken that kind of bold stroke, to say we're going to solve this thing once and for all."
Under the agreement, the company will continue operations for six years. Then it will hand the state 155,000 acres of sugar cane, 30,000 acres of orange trees, a commercial short-line railroad, a private railroad for hauling cane from field to factory, a sugar mill, a sugar refinery, and a just-completed orange juice plant.
"We're turning over lock, stock and barrel," Coker said.