New Hope for the Everglades

Crist's U.S. Sugar deal likely dead in the water
By: Nancy Smith | Posted: April 1, 2010 12:54 AM
Everglades Groundbreaking

Gov. Jeb Bush (second from left), joined by local, state and federal partners, celebrated the groundbreaking of the massive 16,700-acre EAA A-1 reservoir in August 2006

When Federal District Court Judge Federico Moreno ordered construction to resume on the 16,700-acre A-1 reservoir, some of the most significant figures in the past 20 years of Everglades restoration gathered in South Florida to celebrate.

"It was the happiest moment we could remember in a long while," said Mike Collins, former South Florida Water Management District board member. "Just Jeb Bush, Henry Dean, Chip Merriam and me.

"All of us said, 'At least now there's a prayer' for preserving the Everglades."

Judge Moreno decided Wednesday in favor of the Miccosukee tribe's motion to restart the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a years-in-the-making, 68-project plan to better control water releases, restore wildlife habitat and protect the state's estuaries.

The judge's ruling could be the kiss of death for Gov. Charlie Crist's twice-downsized, $536 million land deal to buy 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar.

With a tight economy and an investigative report by The New York Times that revealed the land deal was a "deal" only for U.S. Sugar, Crist's land purchase was on a precipice even before the judge's decision.

"We are reviewing the court's ruling to determine the next steps for the state," said the governor's press secretary, Sterling Ivey, in an e-mailed statement.

Taxpayers had already shelled out almost $300 million of the $800 million reservoir pricetag when Crist -- working with the SFWMD -- shut reservoir construction down in 2008. Had the shut-down never happened, the A-1 reservoir would have been completed this year and would have been ready to store 62 billion gallons of water -- the equivalent of more than 5 million residential swimming pools.

No spokesperson for U.S. Sugar returned the Sunshine State News' calls on Wednesday.

Gaston Cantens, vice president of U.S.-Sugar competitor Florida Crystals and consistent critic of the Crist-U.S. Sugar deal, said going ahead with the purchase "would be a disaster for the Everglades. We're just thankful there's an independent judiciary in this country."

That "independent judiciary" apparently took the Everglades Trust by surprise.

On Wednesday, the same day as Judge Moreno's ruling, Thom Rumberger of the Trust issued a press release chiding sugar cane growers:

"Recently, the president of Florida’s sugar cane coop suggested that the restoration of America’s Everglades should be done under the oversight of a 'well-intentioned third party to drive a process that is free of politics and self-serving interests.' George Wedgworth should be delighted to learn that just such a party, the Federal Court, is driving the process, and has been for more than two decades."

Rumberger could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

But Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, said the coop has been a participant in Everglades restoration efforts for 20 years. She said she'll be "thrilled" to see reservoir construction resumed.

"You know," said Collins, "the judge's ruling makes me feel good for Chip Merriam, a Water Management District scientist who was fired -- that's right, fired -- for refusing to go along with the new baloney. All of a sudden the Everglades Foundation comes along, and after we built a plan with sound science and financial responsibility, they're making scientific decisions because a bunch of faux environmentalists gives them a lot of money ...

"And," he said, "I feel good for Henry Dean, too." Dean, an attorney versed in all 68 of CERP's restoration projects, retired as executive director of SFWMD in 2005.

"But it's Jeb (Bush) who deserves to be celebrating the most," Collins said. "Jeb has always been committed to the Everglades. Always. I've had him in my boat, taking him around, showing him the 'glades time after time. You can't compare Charlie's commitment to Jeb's.

"The Crist-Sugar deal has set Everglades preservation back a decade," he said. "And, by the way, it isn't restoration now, it's only preservation.

"The Everglades can never be restored."

On Aug. 2, 2006, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush broke ground on the A-1 Reservoir, he said, "Florida is keeping its promise to restore the River of Grass and protect this national treasure. ..."

Along with capturing runoff from agricultural areas, the reservoir will store freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee to reduce harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

Reach Executive Editor Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 850-583-1823.






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