01/11/2013 04:01 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Big Sugar Land Deals In Everglades Restoration Plan Raise Environmental Concerns

Big Sugar land deals lumped into Florida's revamped Everglades restoration plan are raising concerns with environmentalists worried about prolonging water pollution for decades.

The state would trade 8,700 acres of taxpayer-owned farmland in Palm Beach County to sugar giant Florida Crystals for about 1/3 as much private property more strategically located for new restoration plans.

The state also would extend leases, some for as long as 30 years, allowing Florida Crystals and other sugar cane growers to continue farming publicly owned land that was once part of the Everglades.

In addition, about $2 million of South Florida taxpayers' money would be used to buy 638 acres of agricultural land west of Lake Okeechobee.

The goal is to acquire more land to store and clean up stormwater needed to replenish the Everglades and to start meeting overdue federal water quality standards.

But Audubon of Florida and the Everglades Foundation question the newly surfaced lease extensions that would leave sugar cane farming -- and the influx of polluting phosphorus that can come with it -- entrenched for decades in areas targeted for restoration.

"We are very concerned," said Jane Graham of Audubon of Florida. "It has just been very under the table. ... It hasn't been open to the public at all."

The collection of land trades, lease extensions and purchases goes before the Florida Cabinet for approval on Jan. 23.

The South Florida Water Management District board on Thursday gave initial approval to the $2 million purchase of the 638 acres of A. Duda & Sons, Inc. farmland in Glades County west of Lake Okeechobee. It's contingent on Duda getting 30-year lease extensions on state-owned farmland in Palm Beach County.

District officials contend that the chance to store more water for Everglades restoration is worth extending leases on land where farming already occurs.

"This is a fantastic project from all sides," District Board Member Daniel DeLisi said.

Florida Crystals would get more land than it is giving up because its 2,000 acres -- near the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge -- is more productive farmland than the property to the north that the district is offering in the trade, Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens said.

"They object to things just because there is progress being made," Cantens said about the environmental groups. "It's just unbelievable."

A revamped $1.5 billion Everglades restoration plan unveiled in June calls for building new water storage and treatment areas along with other improvements over more than a decade.

The proposed land trades would result in Florida Crystals acquiring a large portion of land formerly owned by competitor U.S. Sugar Corp.

The water management district in 2010 acquired 26,800 acres of U.S. Sugar land in a high-profile, $197 million Everglades restoration land deal that Florida Crystals fought in court.

Florida Crystals has "moved on" from its fight over the district's deal with U.S. Sugar and was always willing to trade land for Everglades restoration, Cantens said.

"We have always supported legitimate restoration efforts. ... Certainly this is one of them," Cantens said. "It's the land that the district owns that is available for sugar cane farming, which is what we do.", 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews ___