Posted September 10, 2013 at 11:57 a.m., updated September 10, 2013 at 7:48 p.m.
WEST PALM BEACH — With the deal’s deadline about a month away, Gov. Rick Scott didn’t offer a preference Tuesday on an option to buy sugar land to send more Lake Okeechobee water south into the Everglades, away from the St. Lucie Estuary.
Over a two-week period in August, Scott promised more than $130 million for projects related to the St. Lucie. But Scott and state officials haven’t prioritized the land buy. Scott opposed a U.S. Sugar Corp. land purchase deal as a tea party candidate in the 2010 Republican primary, claiming the deal was crafted to benefit special interests.
The Republican governor addressed the land buy Tuesday at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, his first stop on a statewide tour to brainstorm new tax cuts.
“We work with our Department of Environmental Protection and water management districts to see what land they need to continue to make sure we have the quality of water we want (flowing) through the Everglades,” Scott told reporters Tuesday. “So it will be a decision they focus on.”
Oct. 12 is the expiration date on the South Florida Water Management District’s three-year option to buy up to 153,200 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land at a set price of $7,400 an acre, about $1.1 billion. Also under a deal negotiated with U.S. Sugar, the state has the option to buy 46,800 acres, most of it on the south end of the lake between Clewiston and Belle Glade, at the same per-acre price — a total of about $346 million.After the deadline passes, the district has six years left to buy all or part the land, but at market price.
The district has said there is no active negotiation to buy the land, which local environmentalists argue is the best move to divert Lake Okeechobee releases away from the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, and into the River of Grass. The problem, the district has said, is lack of money.Representatives from U.S. Sugar have said the plan for a “flow way” south was deemed not viable multiple times. But at an Aug. 22 Senate hearing on Lake Okeechobee discharges, Bubba Wade Jr. of U.S. Sugar said his company was not opposed to having a panel revisit the flow-way concept.
The other sugar giant, Florida Crystals Corp., was willing to swap lands necessary to create a flow-way in 2008. But a Florida Crystals spokesman said he’s not sure about the swap now, since it hasn’t been brought up to the company.“Now, I don’t know,” said Gaston Cantens, Florida Crystals vice president of corporate relations. “No one has approached us about it.”
Then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced the sugar land purchase idea in June 2008. The $1.7 billion deal would have bought out U.S. Sugar and its 187,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area. After the economy tanked, the district approved only a 26,800-acre land buy that cost $197.4 million.Scott tied his 2010 Republican opponent, Bill McCollum, to the scaled-down deal, bashing him for taking huge donations from U.S. Sugar.
For his 2014 re-election try, Scott has since accepted at least $430,000 from U.S. Sugar and affiliates through his political committee, Let’s Get to Work.“Voting in favor of this sweetheart deal for U.S. Sugar places the interests of one company above those of the 7.5 million people who will end up being taxed to pay for this political favor,” Scott said about the U.S. Sugar deal in August 2010.
“During the course of his campaign, McCollum and his attack groups have directly or indirectly received nearly $1 million from U.S. Sugar. He has cut a secret deal supporting a secret tax. Unfortunately for U.S. Sugar, I can’t be bought.”After he toured the St. Lucie Lock and Dam on Aug. 22, Scott started promising cash for water projects benefiting the St. Lucie.
He dedicated $40 million for the C-44 project and $90 million to raise 2.5 miles of Tamiami Trail, a Miami-Dade County stretch of highway blocking the flow of water into the Everglades. The C-44 stormwater treatment area and reservoir will use state and federal dollars to clean runoff into the canal that ends up dirtying the St. Lucie. But the project won’t limit the lake discharges into the estuary.Staff writer Tyler Treadway contributed to this report.
TOXIC WATER: Martin County declares state of emergency for Indian River Lagoon
Stuart also passes resolution to move water south
STUART, Fla. - The paddle boards stand ready at attention.
But no one is coming to Coastal Paddleboarding to use them.
"I'm just mad. I'm sick and tired of talking about this," said Dan Neumann, owner of Coastal Paddleboarding.
Dan Neumann lost almost all of his summer business thanks to the toxic algae in the water. But the rent still has to be paid for his Port Salerno space.
"Every day is worth money to us in some way, whether it's money coming in or money going out. Right now, it's just money going out," said Neumann.
Stories like this have garnered headlines, but now local governments are trying to get more attention, and resources to the problem.
Tuesday night, Martin County Commissioners approved a resolution asking the governor to declare a state of emergency for the Indian River Lagoon.
"I think anything we can do to protect our residents and to protect our resources we should do," said Commission Chairwoman Sarah Heard.
Monday night, Stuart city commissioners passed a resolution supporting the restoration of the southerly flow of water from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades.
"We hope to build a lot of support and momentum and hope this is the first of many to come," said Commissioner Jeff Krauskopf.
For business owners, like Dan Neumann, he's tired of all the talk because a resolution doesn't keep his business afloat.
"Unfortunately on a selfish note, for us there's no quick fix," said Neumann.
The hope is that if the Governor declares an emergency, it could cut through some red tape for potential short and long term fixes for the health of the Indian River Lagoon.