May 16, 2011
So now that it's been chopped in half, like a machete slicing through a sugar cane stalk, will the thing still work?
We think so.
But Floridians are understandably wary of the state's downsized plan to now buy 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land.
After all, that's a far cry from the proposed purchase package that rocked the environmental world a year ago, leaving virtually everyone in differing states of shock. Then the agreement in principle was to buy all of the company's 180,000 acres. That was to provide a Missing Link. There would be storage galore, treatment marshes and, most important for Treasure Coast citizens, relief from the horrendous discharges that devastate the St. Lucie estuary in wet times.
Worldwide, media outlets told of the grand Everglades restoration plan. Most people were dutifully and happily stunned.
Of course, there was one other reaction: Too good to be true.
It had seemed impossible that U.S. Sugar barons would willingly give up their comfy government-supported profits. And yet, that's what was quietly going down, as Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sugar announced the really big deal in June last year.
Enviros celebrated from the rooftops, seeing major reforms in sight to shut down the state's half-century of drainage abuses.
In just weeks, though, the euphoric honeymoon began to fade. Everywhere, the economy was sickening. And certain farm interests cried that the sugarland deal would destroy lake communities and wipe out thousands of livelihoods.
Naysayers (mostly linked to big agriculture) sniped at the purchase from every possible angle.
Still, dedicated conservation groups and leaders tried their best to garner support for the buy. They noted that the average price of $7,400 an acre was below appraisals.
Next, the then-controversial plan limped on through winter and early spring. It looked like the gigantic deal that came in with such a bang might go out with a saddening whimper.
Then, on April 1, just as planners were doodling over possible configurations for restoration, Gov. Crist came out with his next surprise, the scaled down version.
The reduced deal quieted many fears in the lake region, allowed for longer periods of farming and was considered more do-able at $536 million instead of $1.3 billion.
And the smaller package still could move enough water south except in extraordinary years. Moreover, there are option provisions to pick up an additional 107,000 acres within 10 years.
The purchase still faces possible legal challenges. And we have qualms about certain confusing provisions that could extend sugar farming well beyond the seven-year purchase agreement. Conservationists should watch this carefully. We must build that storage-flowway as fast as humanly possible.
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit attacking the government's discharges continues (See RiversCoalition.org). The case serves as an important nudge for government to buy the over-drained land and send water south, where it's supposed to go.