Further reducing the scope of a land-purchase agreement originally proposed by Gov. Charlie Crist (I), the South Florida Water Management District agreed on Aug. 12 to purchase approximately 26,800 acres in the Everglades from the U.S. Sugar Corp. for $197 million.
The district will acquire the land in the Everglades Agricultural Area and C-139 basin for water-quality and environmental restoration projects. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) plans to close on the property in Hendry and Palm Beach counties in October. The deal includes options for up to 10 years to purchase 153,000 more acres from U.S. Sugar at a price of $7,400 per acre. After that exclusive option period, the district will hold a two-year, non-exclusive, right-of-first-refusal, fair-market-value option on 46,800 specifically identified acres as well as a subsequent seven-year, non-exclusive, right-of-first- refusal, fair-market-value option on the balance of the acreage.
“Despite our disappointment that the U.S. Sugar buyout plan had to be reduced dramatically because of the economy, the Everglades Trust is nonetheless pleased that Florida did not let this opportunity slip through our fingers entirely,” said Thom Rumberger, chairman of the Everglades Trust, in an e-mail response to a request for comment.
In June 2008, Gov. Crist announced plans to purchase 187,000 acres from U.S. Sugar for $1.75 billion. Due to the faltering economy and declining revenues, SFWMD’s governing board, in May 2009, first revised down the agreement to 73,000 acres for $536 million. The roughly 27,000 acres included in the deal’s latest version represents less than one-sixth of the amount originally proposed.
The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians filed a motion for a temporary emergency injunction to block the land purchase, fearing the district will not have the funds necessary to continue reservoir construction. The Miccosukee specifically are targeting the construction of Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir A-1, one of the projects authorized under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
A joint venture of Barnard Construction Co., Bozeman, Mont., and Parsons Water & Infrastructure, Pasadena, Calif., began work on the $480-million reservoir project in summer 2006. The joint venture had completed $234 million of construction and was negotiating a $300-million contract to build a related dam when SFWMD suspended the project in May 2008—around the time of Gov. Crist’s original announcement of the U.S. Sugar deal—citing pending litigation with environmental groups.
The joint venture had finished portions of the project, including digging seepage canals, removing muck and setting up water controls. By fall 2007, the project was three months and $7 million ahead of schedule, according to Jeff Kivett, department director of SFWMD’s Everglades restoration engineering department. The district paid the joint venture $12 million to settle claims related to work stoppage, according to SFWMD board minutes. SFWMD since has referred to the project as “ultimately terminated.”
In April 2010, U.S. District Judge Federico A. Moreno in Miami granted the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians’ motion to compel completion of the reservoir and referred the matter to a so-called special master to set deadlines. SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith says Judge Moreno’s decision is going through further legal review, and no work is being done at the site.
The water district asserts the land purchase will not impact its ability to fund construction. “The U.S. Sugar land is being paid for in cash from the capital reserve account which was earmarked for land acquisition,” Smith says.
Eric Buermann, SFWMD board chairman, said at an Aug. 12 press conference the district will argue the U.S. Sugar land purchase is a better plan than continuing work on the reservoir. The purchase will not restore the Everglades on its own, and construction of storage, treatment and pumping facilities are still needed, he said.