Florida Sugar Land Deal Recut to Protect Everglades

MIAMI, Florida, November 12, 2008 (ENS) - Florida officials have agreed to new terms for a land deal with the largest U.S. producer of cane sugar to increase the availability of water storage and flow to the vast Everglades wetland.

The new agreement, subject to approval by the South Florida Water Management District, includes the purchase of more than 180,000 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp. at a price of $1.34 billion.

The agreement is a step down from terms announced in June, which included transfer to public ownership of 187,000 acres and all the sugar company's assets, including 200 miles of railroad, a state-of-the-art sugar mill, sugar refinery and citrus processing plant for $1.75 billion.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist said today that he is satisfied with the new deal.

"A land purchase creates unprecedented possibilities for the River of Grass and for our environment," said Governor Crist, standing outside the Miami home of the late author and Everglades advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglass.

"Many people, including the late Mrs. Douglass, have looked forward to this day," said the governor. "Today, we are closer than ever to making their dreams a reality and giving this wonderful gift of restoration to the Everglades, to the people of Florida, and to our country."

The new terms include a lease-back of the land for $50 per acre, for a period covering seven crop cycles. The sugar mill, refinery and citrus processing facilities, railroads, office buildings, equipment and the Gilchrist County citrus nursery will remain the property of U.S. Sugar.

"After months of negotiations it became clear that the best transaction was for the state to buy the land and for U.S. Sugar to keep the assets. This is a good deal for the state, U.S. Sugar and for our shareholders," said Robert Coker, senior vice president of public affairs for U.S. Sugar.

"We look forward to continuing to work with the governor and the district in the cooperative spirit with which we have begun," said Robert Buker, president and CEO of U.S. Sugar. "We are happy to help the state of Florida restore one of her most precious treasures."

The 180,000 acres, one of the largest environmental land acquisitions in U.S. history, are needed by the South Florida Water Management District to protect Florida's coastal estuaries and better revive, restore and preserve the Everglades.

The land will be used to reestablish a part of the historic connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades through a managed system of storage and treatment areas.

This is expected to reduce the potential for harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to Florida's coastal rivers and estuaries when lake levels are high.

Environmentalists were pleased with the outcome of negotiations.

"The Everglades Foundation applauds Governor Charlie Crist and the South Florida Water Management District for decisively moving forward with this monumental land acquisition. Governor Crist kept his word," said Mary Barley, vice-chair of the Everglades Foundation. "This historic deal will preserve a natural treasure not just for the people of Florida, but also for the entire nation."

"This is just the shot in the arm we need to improve the health of one of America's most treasured, but troubled ecosystems. Floridians on both coasts will be able to say goodbye to damaging freshwater releases that foul up the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, said Everglades Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham.

With the new land acquisition, water managers will have the ability to deliver cleaner water to the Everglades during dry times and greater water storage to protect the natural system during wet years. They will be able to prevent thousands of tons of phosphorus from entering the Everglades every year.

The need for back-pumping water from the Everglades Agricultural Area into Lake Okeechobee to augment the water supply will be eliminated. The District's Governing Board this year voted not to back-pump into the lake during the ongoing water shortage to protect water quality.

{Photo: Harvesting on U.S. Sugar land courtesy Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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