Dec 29, 2009

The Florida Everglades and Sugar

Florida newspaper columnists and authors will on occasion write about the Everglades, where it stands and how it could be changed for the better. The problem with fixing the Everglades as is discussed in the column below is the power of the sugar growers who own important parts of the Everglades to grow their cane.

These sugar farmers are politically well connected and do provide a lot of jobs for a few counties in south Florida

Sadly if Cuba, where some of the wealthiest Florida sugar farmers came from, were to open up that might be the impetus for the state of Florida to cut a deal with the sugar farmers so they could move their entire operations back to Cuba.

Of course it may seem unfair to save one habitat to destroy another but the Florida Everglades is a very special place in the world.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist promised to buy large tracts of the Everglades to begin protecting it but as many Floridians are finding, Governor Crist's promises due not often come true???

Here's an update from Mike Thomas of the Orlando Sentinel 12-27-09:

The world's largest empty swimming pool, a massive 26-square-mile reservoir two years in the making, sits high and dry in the middle of the Everglades, abandoned after taxpayers invested $280 million building it.

The original intent was to store water that would be used to nourish the nation's most endangered swamp. But last September, the South Florida Water Management District paid the contractor $12 million just to walk away from the job.

The district blames environmental groups for filing a lawsuit against the project, which is complete rubbish. They supported the reservoir and wanted to see it finished. Their litigation was aimed at ensuring the water in it would go to the Everglades and not farmers. This is clearly documented in court records, correspondence and even a news release put out by the Natural Resources Defense Council when the lawsuit was filed.

So why blame the environmentalists?

A more realistic explanation is that the district ran out of money. And the reason for that is Gov. Charlie Crist's intervention in the ongoing Everglades-restoration project.

In June 2008, Crist announced a blockbuster deal to buy out U.S. Sugar Corp. and use its 187,000 acres of farmland to store and cleanse water in the massive swamp. But it morphed into a sweetheart deal for U.S. Sugar.

And now it's very much a tossup whether Crist's plans will save the Everglades or doom them.

This isn't easy for me to write because, as a big Glades guy, I was one of those who showered Charlie with confetti 18 months ago.

For decades, the politically powerful sugar growers have held on to their land with a death grip. And that pretty much thwarted plans to save the dying ecosystem because their farms sat in the heart of the Glades, on top of thick muck soil that is black gold to the farmers.

The farms covered about 500,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee. This blocked the natural southern flow of water from the lake into the remaining Glades. It also displaced billions of gallons of water that once covered this land, making the whole region more prone to floods, droughts and pollution.

Competing interests, political complexities, prohibitive costs and myriad government agencies thwarted restoration efforts for decades. But finally, in 2002, the state and federal government agreed on a plan designed around the sugar farms.

Naturally, it got bogged down. The feds didn't come up with their share of the loot. To finally get something going, then-Gov. Jeb Bush jump-started the plan in 2005 with an infusion of state money. This got construction of the massive reservoir under way. It would have been bigger than Lake Apopka.

Even so, it would not have been enough. The problem of inadequate water storage remained because the sugar land was off limits.

Crist's deal to buy out U.S. Sugar was to be the missing link. It meant an overhaul of the 2002 plan, but that was an acceptable trade-off given that, at long last, a permanent solution to the Everglades was in sight.

Lost in the celebration was the reality that we couldn't afford the $1.7 billion price tag. So Crist shrank the deal, and we still couldn't afford it. So he shrank it again, this time to $536 million for 73,000 acres.

Every time the deal got smaller, it got sweeter for U.S. Sugar. The reason was obvious. Crist had so much political capital invested, he had to salvage something. That gave the farm the upper hand in negotiations. U.S. Sugar also had two of the biggest Republican lobbyists in Tallahassee on its payroll, Brian Ballard and J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich. Ballard has been one of Crist's key fundraisers.

The farm demanded that the water district buy its three citrus groves totaling 32,000 acres. The district agreed even though the groves are far-flung, and it may well end up selling one of them as surplus.

Why was U.S. Sugar so eager to dump the groves? A deadly citrus-tree disease known as "greening'' is devastating the industry. Some experts have predicted it could wipe out citrus in Florida. Growers have spent millions of dollars battling it by spraying and bulldozing trees.

One of the hardest-hit groves, covering almost 18,000 acres, is owned by Southern Gardens Citrus, a subsidiary of U.S. Sugar. In January, The Palm Beach Post quoted Southern Gardens' plant scientist, Mike Irey, as saying, "We can't continue to do what we are doing. The price of fruit and juice is down. Production costs are up 40 to 50 percent.''

The price of groves also has fallen considerably.

Now U.S. Sugar gets to unload its citrus land and then keep farming the groves without paying a lease. Most of its profitable sugar-growing land is left out of the deal. And it can lease back the sugar land it does sell to the state for up to 20 years. That may well happen because the district doesn't have the billions of dollars required to build marshes and reservoirs on it.

There also is no telling when it would have the money to buy the remaining U.S. Sugar property. The district is funded by property taxes, which have taken a major dive in South Florida.

"Sitting here today, no, we don't have a funding source, but we are beginning to work on getting a funding source,'' said water district Chairman Eric Buermann, a Crist appointee. "We will need help from the state and federal government."

Both of which also are flat broke.

As flawed as the 2002 plan was, at least it was a plan, and it had moved off dead center. That can't be underestimated when you're talking about the Everglades. The land purchase already is tangled up in the courts, challenged by another sugar grower, Florida Crystals, because it gives U.S. Sugar such a competitive advantage over the other farms.

Says district board member Mike Collins, "The whole thing is just bizarre."

Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or mthomas@orlandosentinel.com.

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