Environmental Protection

SFWMD to Buy Out Sugar Company, Save Everglades

Announcing a new partnership to revive the River of Grass, Gov. Charlie Crist called on the South Florida Water Management District to begin negotiating an agreement to acquire as much as 187,000 acres of agricultural land owned by the United States Sugar Corporation, according to a June 24 press release.

The vast tracts of land would then be used to reestablish a part of the historic connection between Lake Okeechobee and the fabled River of Grass through a managed system of storage and treatment and, at the same time, safeguard the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and estuaries.

"This is a watershed event in national conservation history, and a paradigm shift for the Everglades and the environment in Florida, one that would have been inconceivable in years past. Yet, here we are," said Robert Buker, president and chief executive officer of United States Sugar Corporation. "We look forward to continuing to work with the Governor and the District in the cooperative spirit with which we have begun, in order to make the dream represented by the Statement of Principles that we sign here today a reality for Florida tomorrow."

The proposed agreement between the South Florida Water Management District and the United States Sugar Corporation involves the public purchase of nearly 300 square miles spanning four counties in South Florida – a land mass as large as New York City. The district also will take ownership of the company's assets, including 200 miles of railroad, a state-of-the-art sugar mill, sugar refinery, and citrus processing plant. Subject to independent appraisals and approval by the District's Governing Board, water managers will invest $1.75 billion in cash and certificates of participation to finance the acquisition.

"America's River of Grass sustains life for so much and so many. Today it receives its lifeline," said Everglades Foundation Vice Chair Mary Barley. "A restored and sustained Everglades is no longer a dream. History will record this action as the point that brought it within our reach."

Acquiring the enormous expanse of real estate offers water managers the opportunity and flexibility to store and clean water on a scale never before contemplated. Water managers expect that dedicating significantly more land in the Everglades Agricultural Area to restoration will build upon and enhance the 30-year state-federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and the State of Florida's Northern Everglades program to restore and protect Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and their respective estuaries.

Benefits from the land acquisition will allow for the following:

• Huge increases in the availability of water storage, significantly reducing the potential for harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to Florida's coastal rivers and estuaries when lake levels are high.

• The ability to deliver cleaner water to the Everglades during dry times and greater water storage to protect the natural system during wet years.

• Preventing thousands of tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades every year.

• Forever eliminating the need for "back-pumping" water into Lake Okeechobee from the Everglades Agricultural Area to augment the water supply needs. The District's Governing Board this year voted not to back-pump into the lake during the ongoing water shortage to protect water quality.

Negotiations on the final agreement will take place over the coming months, with a closing on the real estate anticipated before the year's end. As part of the proposal, United States Sugar Corporation will continue to farm and manage the land consistent with its previous business practices for the next six years. Construction of any new water treatment and storage projects on the agricultural land would likely begin following the six-year transition period.

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