U.S. Sugar Land Buy A Tough Sell Among Lawmakers

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – A Senate-commissioned study could give hope to people who want the state to use a large chunk of voter-approved money for water and land projects to buy U.S. Sugar land in the Everglades before an October deadline.

Yet there remains a bitter taste among legislative leaders about completing a deal that was worked out by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

And opponents of the sugar-land purchase, including a coalition that counts U.S. Sugar as a member, contend the University of Florida’s Water Institute study simply highlights the need for the state to speed up completion of existing reservoir projects.

The release of the university study comes as the regular 60-day session begins and as the House is set Wednesday to take up what environmentalists say is a business-friendly approach to creating a new statewide water policy.

Lawmakers also are working to implement a recently passed constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 1, which lays out for 20 years an increase in funding for land and water preservation. That has spurred environmental groups to increase the pressure on completing the estimated $350 million U.S. Sugar purchase.

But legislative leaders said Tuesday they don’t want to rush into the U.S. Sugar deal or any other large land purchases.

“There are a lot more significant issues right now,” said Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Chairman Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican who is helping lead Senate water-related efforts this session. “Life is going to change in five years. I don’t want us to be guilty of trying to do everything for everybody. We need to spread this out.”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, also remains solidly in the camp that favors maintaining existing state lands over quick purchases.

“Buying up land we cannot care for, that falls into disrepair or becomes a breeding ground for harmful invasive species, is not a legacy I am interested in leaving,” Crisafulli said while addressing the House on Tuesday. “If we truly want to honor our beautiful state, then we should spend these early years making sure we can maintain the 5.3 million acres of conservation lands we already own.”

Crisafulli told reporters later that not all land buying is off the table, but the focus of the House will be to maintain state-owned lands and waterways.

The University of Florida study, released Monday, says lawmakers should consider accelerating funding to complete needed reservoirs east and west of Lake Okeechobee, build additional water storage and treatment north and south of the lake, create deep wells to reduce the flow of polluted water from the lake and readjust scheduled releases from the lake to the estuaries east and west.

Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who was able to push through a major funding bill last year aimed at cleaning South Florida waterways, said Tuesday he agrees with the study’s authors in urging lawmakers to “consider” all options to improve the water and southern flow, including the U.S. Sugar land deal.

House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, also said he believes there remains time for Republican leaders to alter their view on the U.S. Sugar deal.

But support isn’t coming from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Putnam said Tuesday that while he hasn’t had a chance to review the entire 148-page university study, what he’s seen backs his belief that the state needs to complete reservoirs north and south of the lake, but those areas don’t require the U.S. Sugar land.

“I was opposed to the purchase of the sugar land under Gov. Crist,” Putnam said. “It’s the wrong land for a central flow-way. It’s not the best use of dollars for Everglades restoration.”

The study’s release was made as lawmakers are starting to divvy up a projected $757 million in next year’s budget for the state’s land and water needs, more than $200 million above what lawmakers allocated for such uses in the current year.

The Everglades Foundation said the university study confirms its belief that more water storage is needed south of the lake, which it says should include the use of the Amendment 1 dollars to purchase the U.S. Sugar land. The 2010 deal would require the state to purchase 46,800 acres, of which 26,100 acres would be used for construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir.

“This reinforces the position the foundation has been advocating, and the foundation encourages the Legislature and the governor to act on the land purchase option now,” foundation Chief Executive Officer Eric Eikenberg said in a release.

The deal approved in 2010, must be completed by Oct. 12 or Florida would have to buy an additional 157,000 acres to get the land for the reservoir.

Meanwhile, the Florida Sugar Farmers, an agricultural coalition comprised of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar Corp., contend the study indicates the need to complete already approved and funded water-management infrastructure projects within the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan framework.

“Like the University of Florida, we have long advocated existing, shovel-ready projects within the CERP framework. In the report, researchers state that expansive gravity-driven wet flow-way through the Everglades is neither feasible, nor able to provide maximal benefits to the estuaries,” Brian Hughes, spokesman for Florida Sugar Farmers, said in a release.

The complicated task of shifting the flow of water from the lake, which scientists have long tried to tackle without available funds, requires working with an area crisscrossed with decades of man-made flood-control projects that have redirected water for an ecosystem similar in size to New Jersey covered with agricultural lands and an ever-expanding population.

“In the system’s pre-engineered state, during high water events, the vast majority of water coming into Lake Okeechobee overflowed the southern rim of the lake and was carried south into the Everglades as sheet flow,” the study said. “However, urban and suburban development along the eastern and western margins of the historic Everglades, and conversion of marsh land south of Lake Okeechobee into agricultural production in what is now the Everglades Agricultural Area, have reduced the Everglades to approximately one half of its original size.”

The study was commissioned by the Florida Senate last year to offer options to reduce freshwater flows from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by sending more water south to the Everglades.

The study notes that Florida is far behind its need to create about 1 million acre-feet of water storage north and south of the lake, 400,000 acre-feet to the west within the Caloosahatchee River watershed and 200,000 acre-feet to the east for the St. Lucie watershed.

So far, only one surface reservoir is being built for the St. Lucie estuary, and it totals 40,000 acre-feet. The Caloosahatchee watershed is only at the design stage for a 170,000 acre-feet reservoir, while no state or federal money has been appropriated.

As for the need for storage north and south of the land, four shallow storage areas, totaling 168,000 acre-feet, are planned, all south of the lake. Three of the reservoirs are scheduled to be completed by 2018.

This report is by Jim Turner with The News Service of Florida.

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