Editorial: Next chapter of Everglades restoration history starts now

The slap against former Gov. Charlie Crist was that he never particularly cared for details. He liked big-picture ideas. None was bigger than his grandiose announcement in 2008 that he had brokered a historic deal to buy out all 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar’s South Florida land for an estimated $1.75 billion, so that it could be returned to the Everglades.

It was a magnificent dream — restore the historic sheet flow of Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades by converting sugar cane fields back to marsh. On Thursday, the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board voted unanimously to drive a stake through any lingering hopes that Crist’s plan would survive Rick Scott’s governorship. The board “irrevocably terminated” its 2015 option to buy an additional 46,800 acres of sugar cane fields at fair-market value.

We grieve the death of this particular dream, alongside the dozens of dedicated activists who showed up for the meeting. But ultimately, we believe that history may show the water district made the right decision, because, in the end, the details really did matter. The purchase apparently would have cost far more than contemplated, accomplished far less, and encumbered the resources needed to more quickly solve the system’s most pressing environmental problems.

As board member James Moran aptly noted, the 2010 revised contract between the district and U.S. Sugar was a “disgrace,” an 80-page boondoggle of poison pills and gotcha clauses, such as one that would force a purchase of the remaining 153,000 acres if the district tried to use eminent domain proceedings.

The U.S. Sugar land couldn’t be bought in pieces, a problem since it was not contiguous, and only parts were ideal for restoration. The biggest and most useful part of the land could be made into a functional reservoir, staff said, but at an ultimate cost of $2.5 billion. If the reservoir was able to hold 4 feet of water, it would accept 84,000 acre feet of water from the lake; and that would help lower the lake a little. But a recent study projected that 1 million acre feet of water storage is needed south of the lake.

Though this chapter has closed, the problems plaguing the River of Grass system remain, and they’re urgent. The Everglades remains parched and choked with invasive species. Lake Okeechobee suffers toxic algae blooms. The oyster beds, sea grasses and aquatic life of the coastal estuaries sicken and die with each floodwater discharge.

The solutions will be multifaceted and complex. Significantly more land is needed north of the lake to clean farm discharges. Significantly more land is needed south of the lake to collect rainwater. But also, serious measures are needed to drop the source of much of the pollution in the Indian River Lagoon — septic tanks and lawn fertilizer.

The water district must make good on board members’ stated commitment to moving with haste to finish projects that have been slowed or stalled since the economic downturn. Scott must make good on his promise to commit $5 billion to Everglades restoration over 20 years. And the federal government must make good on its promise to pay for its share.

Finally, the Florida Legislature must now take seriously the will of the people, 75 percent of whom voted in favor of Amendment 1, the Florida Water Conservation and Land Amendment. That amendment directed the state to spend a third of annual real estate documentary stamp taxes to conservation for the next 20 years.

The need is there. The money should be there, too.

With the U.S. Sugar deal chapter closed, we can hope that the political will may finally be there, too.

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