October 6, 2022

Editor's Page

Sugar Buyout Only Adds to Complexity of Everglades Restoration

Mark R. Howard | 11/1/2008
Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor
With the 8-year-old, much-ballyhooed comprehensive plan (CERP) to save the Everglades mired in its own intricacies, Gov. Charlie Crist’s billion-dollar-plus impulse bid for U.S. Sugar Corp.’s lands has generated a surge of optimism. Whether the purchase will jump-start the restoration program or just throw a new bundle of complications into the picture is very much an open question, however.

The South Florida Water Management District is now slogging through the process of evaluating how much U.S. Sugar is worth. It must then negotiate a purchase price and terms, finance the deal in the current credit environment (!), decide how many of U.S. Sugar’s 187,000 acres to keep, and then sell off excess acreage and other assets like the mill and the railroad that it doesn’t want or need — all the while without destroying the agricultural economy around the lake.

Meanwhile, it will have to determine how to use its new land holdings to store and clean the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee — and then figure out a route for that water into the Everglades. And, of course, it will have to revise the existing comprehensive plan to reflect the new possibilities.

Alone, the issue of how many acres to keep could tie knots into the process. One of the key issues in Everglades restoration is avoiding the feast-or-famine cycle of water flow created by man-made changes that have reduced the area’s ability to store water. To keep the lake from overflowing during periods of heavy rain, the water management district must dump polluted, phosphorus-laden water from Lake Okeechobee eastward and westward via canals into fragile, damaged estuaries on the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean. But if a drought follows the rainy period, the area quickly goes from too wet to too dry, with too little water for people, farms or the Everglades. Case in point: Less than two years after the water management district dumped massive amounts of lake water into the estuaries in 2005 it had to impose water-use restrictions on the region.

The reservoirs and wells envisioned in the comprehensive plan were supposed to provide the capacity to store water rather than dump it. But none of the projects have been completed, the wells have always been problematic, and calculations of water flow based on the current weather cycle indicate the need to store more water than originally planned.

The U.S. Sugar acreage may provide plenty of room to store and clean water, but not everybody is doing the same arithmetic about how many acres are needed — and for what.

The water district has said it doesn’t need all 187,000 acres to amass the 1 million acre-feet of water storage it needs to make CERP work. And it says it’s committed to an approach that will keep U.S. Sugar’s mill in Clewiston open. Some environmentalists, however, believe the district needs to keep as much of the 187,000 acres as it can for water treatment. A sugar industry executive, meanwhile, says the Clewiston mill won’t be economical if the district takes more than about 50,000 acres out of production. Reconciling the storage goals and the economic goals will be tricky.

Then there’s the land and mill owned by the Florida Crystals sugar company, which lie between U.S. Sugar’s property and the Everglades. Regardless of how many U.S. Sugar acres the water management district keeps, that water is going to have to go either around or through Florida Crystals’ land to get to the Glades. Some in the environmental community would like Florida Crystals to fold its tents and ride off into the sunset. That won’t happen, nor should it. However you may view its behavior historically, Florida Crystals today is one of the most sophisticated, competitively run agricultural operations in the state if not the country. For power, its mill and operations consume sugar cane and wood waste in the largest biomass power plant in the country. Between the use of biomass and cane’s consumption of carbon, the company has virtually no net carbon emissions. It’s also working on a biomass-to-ethanol plant.

Whatever deal emerges will have to take Florida Crystals into account — and a lot of people who detest sugar companies as a matter of principle may have to grit their teeth if best serving the Everglades’ interests also favors Crystals at some level.

Aside from the potential for further delaying CERP, the biggest problem with the U.S. Sugar deal is that it continues to focus on the land south of the lake as the solution for the phosphorus pollution that threatens the Everglades. Some 558 metric tons of phosphorus continue to pour into the lake each year — almost all of it from communities, dairies, farms and ranches extending north nearly to Orlando. The state’s goal to maximize the lake’s water quality? 105 metric tons.

Water management district figures show clearly that the agricultural area south of the lake, including the sugar company lands, contributes only a tiny percentage of the phosphorus that flows into the lake. The figures also show that the polluted lake water that flows south into the agricultural area is cleaner when it leaves the agricultural area than when it came in.

Despite the numbers, little effort is made to limit phosphorus pollution at its northern sources. Instead, the approach has been to use Lake Okeechobee as a toilet for the areas to the north, east and west of the lake — and to try to turn the land south of the lake into one big treatment facility. The 2007 expansion of the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act was an acknowledgement that controlling pollution had to involve the areas north of the lake. But that “Northern Everglades” plan, for all the packaging and lip service, was an afterthought and has continued to play a distant second fiddle to CERP.

For the moment, the U.S. Sugar deal has sucked all the air out of any broader discussion of Everglades restoration. “Everybody’s taken their lines out of the water to see if Charlie Crist can reel in the big fish,” says one observer.

But it’s still worth asking how far the $2 billion the state will likely spend on U.S. Sugar would go if spent instead on controlling pollution and storing water north of the lake. It will be interesting in any event to see how much additional delay the deal, whether successful or unsuccessful, adds to the restoration. When it comes to preserving the Everglades, even promising new developments rarely seem to advance the cause, but rather just to add more complexity to the challenge.

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