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The Jaw-Dropping Everglades Deal

By this time, most everyone has heard about the historic deal in the Florida Everglades: U.S. Sugar will sell the state of Florida 187,000 acres that sit between giant Lake Okeechobee and Everglades National Park.

That's 187,000 acres that will no longer be drenched with poison pesticides and fertilizers. It is industrial farmland that blocks the Everglades' natural water flow—now it can hold and filter water as it moves south toward Florida Bay.

To say we're ecstatic down here is a massive understatement. This is the largest conservation deal in Florida history.

We never imagined this giant swath of land would be available for conservation—all the plans called for massive, expensive, and complex engineering to get water to flow around sugar's land.

Gov. Charlie Crist told the state's biggest newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times, that our Earthjustice lawsuit was the catalyst to making this happen:

"According to Crist, the key to getting the deal started was a federal lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Florida Wildlife Federation, challenging the practice of backpumping farm runoff containing phosphorous, pesticides and other chemicals into the lake."

The suit contended that backpumping triggered massive algae blooms and compromised drinking water quality for small towns such as Pahokee and South Bay that draw their supply from the lake.

"In December 2006, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled that backpumping violates the Clean Water Act. Then in August 2007, the South Florida Water Management District—the defendant in the case—voted 4-3 to end the practice. The four votes came from Crist appointees.

Sugar executives viewed the decision as devastating, so they assigned the lobbyists to ask Crist where the industry stood.

"I knew what they wanted and that our administration wasn't excited about embracing any more," Crist said. So he figured that "maybe it was time to take a quantum leap forward."

So, I found myself standing in South Florida with environmentalists, sugar executives, and the governor on June 24, announcing the jaw-dropping deal to a crowd of incredulous reporters. I had known about the deal for months, but was sworn to secrecy.

Yes, many details remain. Yes, U.S. Sugar gets to farm for a few more years. Yes, the state will pay the company $1.75 billion. Believe it or not, that's cheaper than the questionable engineering fixes that were planned to re-plumb that section of the Everglades as part of the massive $8 billion restoration project. Florida won't raise any new taxes to pay for the U.S. Sugar buyout—the money was already earmarked by the South Florida Water Management District for Everglades restoration. The good news if that it will pay for land instead of more steel and concrete structures.

Those of use who have been working for decades on Everglades restoration find ourselves looking at a whole new world now. We never would have gotten this far if it hadn't been for Florida Earthjustice crack researcher Monica Reimer, who tightened down our case until it was bulletproof. I am so very grateful. We do this work to make a difference, and I can say today that we truly have.

Tags:  public lands, water

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unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.