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No Money Left to Fix Everglades? Why Should That Surprise Anybody?

The money's gone. Short of imposing new taxes, there's nothing left to get started on virtually any part of Everglades restoration. Why does that suddenly come as such a surprise?

It certainly shocked Chief U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno on Thursday, because on March 31 he had ordered a $700 million reservoir that had been stopped and destroyed halfway to completion, rebuilt. The South Florida Water Management District had money then.

But after a court-appointed special master advised Moreno to reverse his order, and the SFWMD and the Environmental Protection Agency went along with it, water managers bought into the Gov. Charlie Crist/U.S. Sugar Corp. whittled-down deal.

The original plan involved 187,000 acres and all of U.S. Sugar's assets for $1.75 billion, but it has been repeatedly trimmed as the district wrestles with budgetary shortfalls. The latest revision works out at a cost of $7,400 per acre.

The latest plan encompasses 17,900 citrus acres in Hendry County, which will be leased back to U.S. Sugar at no cost, and 8,900 sugar cane acres in Palm Beach County that carry a $150 per-acre lease rate.

At an Aug. 11 SFWMD meeting to consider the purchase, speaker after speaker warned that there would be only three ways to pay for this bad deal -- go into debt, use reserves or raise taxes. All three options would be unacceptable to taxpayers, SFWMD board members were told. Speakers said the deal will only rescue the fortunes of U.S. Sugar under the guise of Everglades restoration.

But the deal went through anyway. And on Thursday, Water Management District Attorney Kirk Brown admitted the money's gone and paying for any more projects right now -- including the reservoir the judge had ordered rebuilt -- would be "challenging."

Moreno is stymied. How does he rule now? How can any project go forward without money?

The water management district knew it was emptying the piggy bank for U.S. Sugar Corp. The Everglades Foundation knew. The governor knew. The EPA knew. But they all figured Moreno will reverse his decision. And if they have a little land, they can leverage it to get stimulus money, to get a new governor on board with a financing plan that will pay for the rest of the land they need, to raise taxes to restore what they can of a national treasure by -- when? The year 2030?

What a shambles for Florida taxpayers and the Florida Everglades.

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