The Everglades deal

Florida environmentalists are understandably happy about Gov. Crist’s plans to buy 187,000 acres from U.S. Sugar. The purchase covers much of the land between Lake Okeechobee and the remaining Everglades. This land was once part of the “River of Grass,” a sheet of slow-moving water that flowed from the lake to the southern tip of Florida.

From an environmental standpoint, the restoration of huge tracts of wetlands is cause for celebration. Several species of all types, found only in Florida, are on the brink of extinction. Habitat restoration is essential for their survival. But there are human benefits as well. As South Florida’s population continues to grow, we are running out of water. So is North Florida, which is dependent on flows from Georgia to maintain its wetlands and drinking-water supply. We now have a chance to at least partially restore our reservoirs. None too soon, either, as global climate change will clearly upset the balance. Tragically, rising ocean levels caused by warming may someday inundate not only much of our coastline, but the Everglades as well.

Management of the purchased land will be in the hands of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). That has good and bad connotations. While better than handing it over the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, SFWMD is not an environmentally oriented body, either. Like the Corps of Engineers, SFWMD is into engineering: building reservoirs and pipelines, generally just moving water from place to place.

The $1.75 billion purchase price is only the beginning. For nearly a century, U.S. Sugar has dramatically altered the landscape, polluting the soil with millions of tons of fertilizers, and allowing the delicate soil that once formed the base of the Everglades to disappear. Simply flooding that land would destroy the extant parts of the Everglades to the south. It will likely cost several billions more to restore the lost wetlands. And whether SFWMD will get it right remains to be seen.

Still, Gov. Crist has done what no previous Florida governor, Democrat or Republican, was able to do. He has wrested a huge piece of vital real estate out of corporate hands, to return it to the people. Destroying the Everglades for agricultural purposes, especially for sugar, was the worst idea ever concocted in Florida. Sealing off Lake Okeechobee and digging canals to drain the Everglades was an environmental disaster without equal in this country. South Florida residents may grumble about the costs, which will be completely borne by us. The Federal government is not supplying any of the funds, but that keeps them out of the management loop. I don’t see that as all bad, either!

I won’t live to see the finished results of this project, but I’m glad I lived long enough to see it begin.

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