Sugar's sweet deal sours Glades' prospects
Gov. Charlie Crist fumbles chance
By Mike Thomas
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
Says district board member Mike Collins, "The whole thing is just bizarre."
Mike Thomas can be reached at 407-420-5525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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