We see again that however important Everglades restoration is to Florida, it will happen on the sugar industry’s terms.
In mid-2012, Gov. Rick Scott sold the Obama administration on a new state plan for saving what remains of the Everglades. Gov. Scott had no environmental credentials, but he wanted out from the 1988 lawsuit that forced the state to start cleaning water that runs from sugar cane fields into the Everglades. A special tax on the 16 counties of the South Florida Water Management District and on the farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area finances projects to store and treat such runoff.
For Gov. Scott to please the White House and the federal judge overseeing the lawsuit, the state needs more land for those projects. A key piece is roughly 4,600 acres owned by Florida Crystals and Gladeview Holdings. It would double the size of a treatment area for water that goes into the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County. Florida Crystals and Gladeview would trade that land for 8,600 acres the state owns.
Knowing how much the state needed the land, however, Florida Crystals also demanded a 30-year lease to keep farming about 8,000 acres of state land. The 1994 Everglades Forever Act limits such leases to 20 years, so the land can be available sooner for restoration work. But the sugar industry has far more power in Tallahassee than environmental groups, and in January Gov. Scott and the Florida Cabinet approved the longer lease. That action prompted a lawsuit by the Florida Wildlife Federation.
Two weeks ago, The Post’s Christine Stapleton reported that the water management district missed the Sept. 30 deadline to close on the deal acquiring the Florida Crystals/Gladeview land. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the five water management districts, blamed the federation’s lawsuit and extended the deadline to Jan. 30.
That blame is misplaced. Last spring, as part of what disingenuously labeled environmental regulation bill, the Legislature codified those 30-year leases by blocking any lawsuits to overturn them. More likely, Florida Crystals and Gladeview are holding out for even more favors, though Ms. Stapleton showed how the deal already is a lopsided one, with the public getting the short end by about $25 million.
When the companies demanded the longer leases, the state could have started eminent domain proceedings to take the land, with an arbitrator determining the price. But though the sugar industry has caused much of the pollution in the Everglades, the industry’s campaign donations in Florida and Washington insulate it from such challenges — even as The Washington Post reports that the federal program to support sugar prices costs the government $300 million each year and raises prices for consumers.
Still, the water management district should meet the new deadline, with no more favors for the industry. The land is vital to Everglades restoration, and Everglades restoration is vital to Florida.
for The Post Editorial Board