Last week, when Florida announced that it would buy U.S. Sugar properties in South Florida, it seemed to me that some things were being left unsaid in the initial wire reports. I was particularly concerned with the funding for the purchase, and wondered if any other problems were lurking. (Yes, the last eight years have made me very cynical, indeed.) It turns out that funding is a problem in the Everglades deal.
But the deal will also tie up much of the state's share of Everglades funding -- at a time when budget worries have delayed other projects in the restoration plan. Federal funds have been so scarce that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is co-managing the restoration, has been ordered to slash project costs.Restoration of natural flow from Lake Okeechobee to Everglades National Park also seems unlikely, despite initial reports.
The state typically spends about $325 million a year on Everglades projects, said Tom Olliff, the district's assistant executive director. But the debt payments on the $1.7 billion sugar deal will eat up as much as $153 million of that each year.
The water district should still have about $170 million a year to spend on other Everglades projects and land purchases, Olliff said. But some of that money must be approved annually by the Legislature, which cut Everglades funding for the budget year that begins Tuesday.
No one has drawn plans for building on the U.S. Sugar property, but any combination of new reservoirs and marshes would certainly add billions of dollars to the price tag. For example, a 16,000-acre Everglades reservoir under construction in Palm Beach County is expected to cost taxpayers about $800 million.
''It's a lovely concept,'' said Carol Ann Wehle, the water management district's executive director. But ``you are never, ever going to have sawgrass marsh there.''There are other issues as well; in particular, indigenous tribes living in the area do not seem to have been consulted by the state. There is plenty more discussion at the link.
Planners say the sugar fields south of the lake have lost too much earth to farming, leaving a deep bowl that would prevent any water from flowing to the south without artificial pumps. Studies also have shown that converting the sugar fields to marsh would produce so much evaporation that the Everglades could wind up with less water.
In any case, Lake Okeechobee's water is simply too polluted to pour directly into the Glades. A reservoir would allow water managers to manipulate water depths and move it where it's needed depending on rainfall and seasonal conditions.
The deal was still worth doing, even if it temporarily stops some of the other restoration projects. U.S. Sugar's cessation of operations will remove at least one major water user and polluter. That seems to be a step in the right direction, even if its potential takes a long time to be realized.