After three months of study and public comment on the issue, the South Florida Water Management District board on Thursdaymade a formal decision to irrevocably terminate the all-or-nothing 46,800-acre initial option between United States Sugar Corp. and its affiliates and the South Florida Water Management District.
However, the vote, which was unanimous, doesnot affect the 153,000-acre option that expires Oct. 11, 2020.
"The UF (Water) Study says the No. 1 recommendation is finish the projects," said SFWMD Vice Chairman Kevin Powers, who made the motion to terminate. "And the No. 2 recommendation is, look for storage north of the lake. I agree. ..." He told members of the audience who show up at each meeting to comment, "Let's continue all these conversations ... look for storage north and south and east and west of the lake ... and come back next month and the month after that. But all the while we will be advancing projects already under way."
Some of the more than 50 members of the public who spoke could see the writing on the wall.
Former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, among the leaders of the "Buy the Land" movement, told the board, "I threw out my speech ... It occurred to me last night ... you do not want to buy the option property. Our frustration comes from the fact that you do not have a plan B."
Hurchalla, who admitted her interest is the health of the estuaries, suggested the SFWMD board back state Sen. Joe Negron's plan to ask the Legislature for $500 million to buy land -- "the square of land, the perfect piece of land ... to send the water south."
"Storage in the north is only going to stop phosphorus from loading in the lake, it's not going to stop water from polluting the estuaries," saidTropical Audubon Society Executive Director Laura Reynolds.
But the U.S. Sugar Corp. contract's inability to solve the problem of releasing millions of gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries was a chief factor in Thursday's termination vote.
Board member Jim Moran told the audience the reservoir sugar-land proponents envision isn't the panacea they think. "You want us to try to come up with another $1.5 billion to alleviate the problems for the estuaries ... but I understand for that, all you would do is take another 2 inches off the lake."
Moran, an attorney, derided the contract. "It's a matter of getting the best bang for the buck," he said, "putting taxpayers' money to the best use. U.S. Sugar's contract was a boondoggle from the day it was signed. We paid almost $200 million for land we couldn't use. ... Even if this option were the answer, which it isn't, and even if we had the money, which we don't, U.S. Sugar could still continue to farm 35,700 acres until 2030. The contract is a disgrace."
Board member Rick Barber said, "I want to see us finish projects. Of 68 projects, we have completed zero. Every year there's a new shiny thing out there to attract the Legislature. ... We need to finish projects."
In answer to Hurchalla and others who brought up the absence of a fall-back plan, board member Sandy Batchelor said, "We already have a plan B. It's completing our Restoration Strategies, CEPP and other projects left hanging. We have to do that first before we can move a drop of water south."
Board member Melanie Peterson perhaps stirred the most controversy among the audience. "Read the UF study," she said. "The whole study ... and consider that 85 percent of the pollution is from local runoff."
In a formal statement after the meeting, Judy Sanchez, senior director, corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar Corp., said: "It is not surprising that the Governing Boards legal action today formalized what the district, the governor and the Legislature have been saying for several years -- that their priority for Everglades and estuary ecosystem restoration is completing a $5 billion slate of projects that are already planned and approved and will provide real benefits for the environment throughout the 16-county region.
"U.S. Sugar intends to continue to partner in Everglades restoration efforts. In fact, we commit to working with state and federal parties as well as willing environmental organizations in advancing the restoration projects outlined in the governors 20-year plan.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith