SFWMD terminates option on U.S. Sugar holdings

WEST PALM BEACH – Former Governor Charlie Crist’s “River of Grass” dream ended quietly last week when the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board terminated the state’s option on 153,209 acres of U.S. Sugar’s holdings. Without this action, the agreement would have expired Oct. 11, 2020.

At the Dec. 13 meeting of the SFWMD Governing Board, Brian Accardo, SFWMD general counsel, said this option agreement was specifically named in Senate Bill 10. Florida Statute 373.4598 entitled “Water Storage Reservoirs” required the SFWMD to terminate the option agreement with U.S. Sugar Corporation provided in the Aug. 12, 2010 contract if U.S. Sugar requested it and the post-authorization change report for the Everglades Agricultural Area (“EAA”) Reservoir received congressional approval. Congress approved the post-authorization change report in October 2018. U.S. Sugar has submitted a letter dated Nov. 29, 2018, requesting that the district terminate the option.

The State of Florida had an option to purchase the U.S. Sugar holdings marked in yellow on the map. The Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir site is in the red circle. The areas in green already are in state ownership. The rectangles in white directly below the red circle are the Holey Land Wildlife Management Area on the right and the Rotenberger Wildlife Management Area on the left.

SFWMD Governing Board Member Brandon Tucker said at fair market value, the cost would be around $2 billion. “Where on earth would we even come up with this money?” he asked.

Kimberly Mitchell of Everglades Trust spoke at the SFWMD meeting to oppose the termination of the option on the U.S. Sugar holdings. She said the planned footprint for the EAA reservoir is not large enough, and the land option could be used to leverage a plan for a larger EAA reservoir.

“I’ve heard the care for plants, for pets, but not people,” said Rev. Lionel Camel said. “This would impact the life of living people … people who rely upon that land, and U.S. Sugar to feed their families. I encourage this district to back out of it, not to purchase this land.

“When we first entered into this agreement, I think we all were looking for solutions … We’ve discovered other solutions that would help with providing clean water to the Everglades,” Rev. Camel continued.

“I thank you for relying on the science,” he said.

“We are pleased the South Florida Management District followed the dictates of Senate Bill 10 and unanimously terminated the decade-old option agreement, allowing the EAA reservoir to proceed as the Florida Legislature intended. U.S. Sugar has and will continue to support the construction of the EAA reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee,” said U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez, Senior Director for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.

The motion to terminate the option passed unanimously.

The move was no surprise to those who regularly follow the SFWMD news. Eight years ago, The New York Times predicted this outcome. An Aug. 12, 2010 article headlined “For the Everglades, a Dream Loses Much of Its Grandeur,” stated: “To some degree, the deal has also been defined by shortsightedness. Internal records and interviews show that the governor and the district repeatedly underestimated the purchase’s financial and environmental complications, leading to the costly suspension of projects with more immediate benefits, and to the alienation of potential partners. Ultimately, they left the Everglades with delays in exchange for majestic dreams, now unlikely to be realized.”

Gov. Crist’s plan to “buy the land,” was doomed by geography and by economics.

The U.S. Sugar holdings, scattered around the shore of Lake Okeechobee, are not in the right location to create a flow way of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. When he proposed the grand purchase, Gov. Crist suggested the state could trade some of the U.S. Sugar holdings for other properties in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), but the trade agreement ever materialized.

In addition, the deal made by the Crist administration would have allowed U.S. Sugar to continue farming the land for 20 years.

The New York Times article suggests Gov. Crist was motivated by a desire to be viewed as a strong supporter of environmental causes in his bid to be Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s running mate. Gov. Crist, who was not chosen for that ticket, did not seek re-election as governor in 2010, and instead campaigned for the Republican nomination for the Senate seat vacated by Senator Mel Martinez. When he did not get that nomination, Gov. Crist switched parties to run for that office as an Independent; He was defeated by Marco Rubio. In 2012, he switched parties again to join the Democratic Party, and 2014 he sought a second term as governor – this time as a Democrat – but was defeated by Republican Rick Scott. In 2016, he was elected, as a Democrat, to the United States House of Representatives from Florida’s 13th congressional district.

From an economic standpoint, the “River of Grass” plan was problematic. The price tag for the deal to buy the land at fair market value, as required in the agreement, would strain the state’s budget at a time when more funding is needed for restoration projects on land the state already owns, as well as other areas of the state budget such as education. From the start, critics complained that instead of spending even more state money on land acquisition, the state should focus on construction of projects on land the state already purchased.

About 25 percent of the EAA is already in public ownership, some of it leased back to farmers until the state has funding to start the projects.

Critics also argued that any land purchases should be in the right locations for projects that are already planned. The affected county governments oppose losing part of their ad valorem tax base when the state buys up land.

EAA resevoir could have been built years ago

As referenced by the New York Times article, the plan to buy up U.S. Sugar’s holdings resulted in delays of other Everglades restoration projects, including the original EAA reservoir.

The SFWMD Everglades Consolidated report from 2001 tells the story of the Talisman Sugar Co, property. The purchase agreement between Talisman Sugar Co., the U.S. Department of the Interior and The Nature Conservancy was funded by a cooperative agreement between the Interior, TNC and the SFWMD. Talisman committed to selling its entire holdings in the EAA, totaling approximately 53,500 acres.

A second agreement involved the SFWMD, Interior, TNC, Talisman and Sugar Interests, including U.S. Sugar Co., Florida Crystals and the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative (referred to in the report as “the Sugar Interests”). Through this agreement, the SFWMD would acquire approximately 21,000 acres directly from Talisman and approximately 29,000 acres from the Sugar Interests in exchange for Talisman conveying to the Sugar Interests the balance of the Talisman land. The Sugar Interests reserved use of the Talisman and Sugar Interest lands for sugar cane farming prior to district project implementation. The Interior contributed funding for approximately $108 million, and SFWMD contributed approximately $38.5 million.

Buying the land was one thing. Funding the project was another.

Over the years, funding has been a continual problem in the federal/state partnership to restore the Everglades, The federal government sometimes has seven year gaps between funding any water projects.

In 2004, under Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s administration, a plan was advanced to speed up some aspects of the Everglades Restoration.

ACCELER8 was proposed as a major boost for Everglades restoration by expediting eight restoration projects:
• C-43 (Caloosahatchee River) West Reservoir;
• Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir;
• Everglades Agricultural Area Stormwater Treatment Area Expansion;
• Picayune Strand (Southern Golden Gate Estates) Restoration;
• C-44 (St. Lucie Canal) Reservoir/Stormwater Treatment Area;
• Water Preserve Areas (Includes Site 1 Impoundment, C-9 Impoundment, C-11 Impoundment, Acme Basin B Discharge, WCA-3A/3B Seepage Management);
• Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands; and,
• C-111 Spreader Canal.

“By accelerating the funding, design and construction of these projects, the Everglades will experience positive benefits much sooner… and in a more cost-effective manner. As opposed to the ‘pay as you go’ approach, taxpayer dollars needed for construction will be significantly leveraged. The South Florida Water Management District will finance project construction with ‘Certificates of Participation’ revenue bonding. Financing and fast-tracking these projects NOW helps avoid the inevitable increases in construction materials and labor costs,” explained a 2004 SFWMD press release.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it might have worked. But as often happens in Florida, not all environmentalists agreed on the best course of action; someone filed a lawsuit; and, then politics got in the way.

Under Gov. Bush, the South Florida Water Management District set about executing the programs and designing the projects. Construction on the EAA reservoir started. But in 2007, a group of environmentalists filed a lawsuit and work on the reservoir was suspended. By the time the lawsuit was dropped, Gov. Crist was in office and the ACCELER8 projects were no longer a priority. The state could not afford to complete the ACCELER8 projects and move forward with the new governor’s land purchase plan. Construction of the original EAA reservoir halted – costing the state taxpayers millions in penalties paid to the construction companies for defaulting on the contracts, and further delaying Everglades restoration plans.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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