South Florida water managers have agreed to trade 8,700 acres of publicly-owned sugar cane land that was part of a controversial 2010 Everglades restoration land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp.
The proposed deal calls for the South Florida Water Management District to give up 8,700 acres in Palm Beach County, near Lake Okeechobee, and pay nearly $6 million in exchange for about half as much land to the south, which is more strategically located for Everglades restoration.
The district board gave its initial OK Thursday, but still must give final approval after a formal agreement is reached with landowners.
The 4,500 acres that the district ends up getting would allow expanding a neighboring stormwater treatment area, which uses aquatic plants to filter phosphorus and other pollutants out of water that flows in the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge -- the northern reaches of the Everglades.
The 4,500 acres the district gets in the deal come from sugar producer Florida Crystals and Gladeview Holdings LC. Florida Crystals gets the 8,700 acres once owned by its rival, U.S. Sugar.
Gladeview Holdings gets about 2,900 acres east of its old property, provided by Florida Crystals. Gladeview also gets nearly $6 million from the district.
The money for Gladeview is to compensate for relocation costs and to avoid an eminent domain legal fight, which district officials say could cost them even more.
Florida Crystals gets more land than it provided in the trade because the old U.S. Sugar land to the north is not considered as fertile as the ground Florida Crystals gives up in the trade.
The value of the land the district is trading is estimated to be about $20 million more than the land it is getting in return. But district officials contend the deal allows them to eventually save $32 million in Everglades restoration costs by being able to expand an existing stormwater treatment area.
"Location, location, location," said Martha Musgrove, of the Florida Wildlife Federation, which supported the deal.
The transaction would help revamped Everglades restoration efforts "stay on schedule," District Assistant Executive Director Ernie Barnett said.
Florida Crystals had been a staunch opponent of the 2010, $197 million land deal that enabled the district to acquire 26,800 acres from U.S. Sugar for Everglades restoration efforts.
Trading some or all of that U.S. Sugar land had been envisioned as one of the benefits of acquiring the property.
"Florida Crystals has always supported science-based Everglades restoration projects, which is why we are willing to move forward with the land swaps, despite the potential cost to us," Gaston Cantens, Vice President of Florida Crystals Corporation, said in a statement released Thursday.
The land swaps and expanded stormwater treatment effort are part of Florida's $880 million Everglades water pollution clean-up proposal.
The plan calls for building nearly 7,000 acres of additional stormwater treatment areas to go along with more than 50,000 acres of manmade filter marshes already used to absorb phosphorus from stormwater headed to the Everglades.
In addition, reservoirs called "flow equalization basins" would be built nearby to hold water for the treatment areas.
Phosphorus, found in fertilizer, animal waste and the natural decay of soil, washes off agricultural land and urban areas and drains into the Everglades with damaging effects on wildlife habitat.
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