The history of Everglades restoration is littered with bait-and-switch tactics, most often via proposals with great fanfare and promises of public benefits, but eventually consummated into the dust of sordid backroom deals to benefit private interests. The latest iteration of the US Sugar buyout, however, absolutely takes the cake.
Two years ago, Governor Crist proposed a dramatic $1.7 billion buyout of US Sugar, including 180,000 acres of land, in order to re-establish the historic connection between Lake Okeechobee and Everglades . In one fell swoop, Everglades Restoration changed from a patchwork quilt of do-little projects into a real and exciting opportunity for genuine restoration. Cheers came from around the world.
Restore major wetlands within the EAA, historic flows from Lake O to Everglades , help restore coastal estuaries. Failed ideas such as aquifer storage wells were to be discarded. At last, the environment had a real chance to recover. Sure, the deal was costly, but worth it.
Bad economic times and political opposition from other sugar interests intervened, and last year the purchase was scaled back to 73,000 acres. Everglades, Lake O and Estuary interests still championed the deal. Many workshops and meetings were held on how the land would be incorporated into a storage flowway. There were still options to eventually purchase the rest of the land.
Forward to today. The purchase acreage has been reduced again, now to 26,800 acres. The price per acre stayed the same, but the location of the land has moved to the edges of the EAA. The most likely use for the proposed purchase is to construct more storm water treatment areas to treat dirty EAA drainage, but wait; the public already paid for over $1 billion worth of STA’s to improve private drainage water quality going to the Everglades . When does the EAA step up and clean at least some of its own water?
This new purchase plan is but a fig leaf to cover politicians who promised real restoration and now will not deliver. It’s a huge bonus for US Sugar, which will sell two parcels of land they no longer want, and SFWMD does not need.
Some say the value of the land deal is in acreage to be swapped for other lands. If that were true, the purchase land would be located where the soil is still deep and has value. The purchase land is not necessary for Everglades restoration, or Lake restoration. It has absolutely nothing to do with protecting coastal estuaries.
The truth is we have been baited and switched again. This is a bad deal. Environmental advocacy groups have trouble switching from support to damnation as quickly as private and political interests can change the deal, especially when those interests always have a head start behind closed doors. So it’s not easy to do.
In this case, it’s the only thing to do. Kill this deal and start fresh. And do it quickly.
--Kevin Henderson, Board Member, Rivers Coalition