Everglades' sugar deal still has a long way to go

MIAMI, June 25 Wed Jun 25, 2008 4:00pm EDT

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MIAMI, June 25 (Reuters) - Florida's proposed $1.75 billion buyout of U.S. Sugar Corp. and its cane fields still has high hurdles to clear before the coveted acreage can be put to use cleansing and restoring the state's famed Everglades.

Environmentalists who long accused U.S. Sugar and other farmers of polluting the fragile wetland were positively giddy over Tuesday's announcement that the state would buy 187,000 acres (75,680 hectares) of land described as the missing link in the decades-old effort to restore the River of Grass.

They said the deal offers a real opportunity to save the threatened habitat, a vast, mosquito- and alligator-infested tract of shallow river, sawgrass prairie, mangrove islands and pine forests in southern Florida that is home to numerous rare species including the endangered Florida panther.

The deal's structure, however, will allow U.S. Sugar to farm the land for the next six years, and it could take a decade after that to build giant reservoirs and marshes that will allow more and cleaner water to flow south from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades and Florida Bay.

The first step is to complete the complex deal, which is now only a statement of principles. State officials must value the land and put in place the funding, including $1.7 billion in certificates of participation to be sold to investors.

Because the U.S. Sugar acreage isn't precisely what is needed, the state must orchestrate a series of complicated land swaps with neighboring farmers.

"We need negotiations with other landowners to trade parcels so that we can actually develop a corridor that runs from Lake Okeechobee south into the Everglades," said Debbie Harrison of the World Wildlife Fund. "That will be a very challenging process."

Once Florida assembles the corridor, it begins the hard work of renovating the land to reestablish the flow of water.

"How much money will it take? How do we restore it? Where are the pollutants that need to be removed? Who's responsibility is it?" Harrison said. "These are questions that need to be answered."

The land must be converted to a series of reservoirs, stormwater treatment areas and filtering marshes that store and clean billions of gallons of water so it can be sent south, restoring a natural flow into the wetland.

Tom Van Lent, a scientist with the Everglades Foundation who has been studying cures for what ails the Everglades for 25 years, said he envisions the world's largest reservoir, holding some 325 trillion gallons (1,477 trillion litres) of water.

"We take water when it's very wet, put it in this big savings account reservoir and then withdraw it in years like this year when the Everglades are very dry," he said.

"For an investment in 100,000 acres of land here," he said, pointing to a map of the farmland south of Lake Okeechobee, "I get more than 3 million acres of restored Everglades in return. That's a reasonable bargain."

Van Lent is among those who think it can be done 10 years after the land is bought, or 16 years from now.

But the cane fields have not been the only barrier to Everglades restoration. Environmentalists and scientists are still grappling with the Tamiami Trail, a ground-level roadway that stretches from Miami to the west coast of Florida and blocks water flow to the southern end of the state.

A bridge across the Everglades may be the answer.

"In order to really let it flow you're going to need to get that barrier created by Tamiami Trail out of the way," said Eric Draper, deputy director of environmental group Audubon of Florida.

"There have been a number of proposals for that. It's a little controversial. We need to somehow get that road elevated and out of the way so the water can get moving underneath it."

Despite the obstacles, some environmentalists have said the $8 billion Everglades restoration plan, announced with great fanfare in 2000 but since bogged down in funding problems, was never really viable without the U.S. Sugar land.

Now, they say, the River of Grass has a chance.

(Editing by Michael Christie and Cynthia Osterman)

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