The South Florida Water Management District today closed on the initial River of Grass land acquisition with U.S. Sugar. The deal will set aside nearly 27,000 acres of former Everglades land, now used for agriculture, for restoration and water quality improvements in the Everglades.
The deal originally encompassed more than 180,000 acres but was downsized because of the economic downturn. However, the deal leaves open the possibility of the District acquiring the remaining 153,000 acres in the future.
“No one imagined that Florida could get more Everglades land into public ownership,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “This is just the first step, but it is an important step in securing land that is critically needed to store and treat polluted water going to the Everglades.”
In the current scaled-down U.S. Sugar deal, the South Florida Water Management District will acquire 26,790 acres from U.S. Sugar for $197 million. The deal includes two parcels. The first is comprised of 17,900 acres of citrus located in Hendry County. This parcel will be used for water quality projects in the C-139 basin, which has long suffered from elevated pollution levels. The second parcel, located in Palm Beach County, contains 8,900 acres of sugarcane. This parcel will be used to expand existing water quality treatment for the S-5A basin, and to help protect the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
U.S. Sugar’s primary competitor, Florida Crystals, along with the Miccosukee Tribe, had waged a fierce legal and lobbying war to derail the U.S. Sugar deal. However, the District persevered. At the end of August, court-appointed Special Master John Barkett released a report recommending that a massive planned reservoir project be abandoned in light of the restoration opportunities made possible by the land acquisition. Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, National Parks Conservation Association, and Audubon Society of the Everglades — all represented by Earthjustice — had argued that the reservoir should be reconsidered in light of the new, more natural, and sensible options presented by the land deal.
“This is a historic day for Florida,” Guest said. “I am hopeful that we are on the track to true Everglades restoration.”