Everglades Cleanup Threatened by Financial Crisis

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
February 9, 2009
Despite financial uncertainties and legal challenges, Florida officials are proceeding with a U.S. $1.34-billion plan to restore the Everglades to something approaching its natural state.

The plan, to be decided by September, would see the state buy farmland, some of which would be converted into reservoirs, which would filter pollutants from water before it flows into the vast, troubled wetland.

The purchase would encompass 180,000 acres (73,000 hectares) that the United States Sugar Corporation has used for decades to grow sugarcane in South Florida. (See "Everglades Rescue 'Out on a Limb' Without Federal Aid" [July 3, 2008].)

Opponents of the Everglades plan, including sugarcane company Florida Crystals, say the deal would further strain government budgets already stressed by the recession and give an unfair subsidy to U.S. Sugar.

The Everglades, a UN World Heritage wilderness, includes Everglades National Park and thousands of miles of adjacent wetlands, mangrove swamps, and islands home to many species found nowhere else, some of them endangered.

The Everglades ecosystem has suffered from human activities over the past century, including agricultural pollution and drainage. Canals were dug decades ago to siphon water for rapidly growing cities and to create land suitable for development.

Everglades Doomed?

Florida officials want to use part of the U.S. Sugar property to build reservoirs to purify water before releasing it into the Everglades. Another sizable chunk of the land could be leased to agribusinesses for farming.

If the state does not buy the land, many conservationists say, the Everglades could be doomed.

"The purchase is more than important," said Tom Van Lent, senior scientist for the Everglades Foundation in Miami. "It's absolutely essential."

But even with the support of Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who helped craft the deal with U.S. Sugar last summer, the deal faces hurdles.

For starters, the current sluggish economy has choked tax revenues and made it difficult and expensive to borrow money.

And the Florida government, which has no state income tax and relies on property taxes for much of its budget, is facing drastic shortfalls because of plummeting property values across the state.

To fund the purchase, the state government's South Florida Water Management District would sell bonds to Wall Street investors.

But a recent report issued by Black & Veatch, an engineering and construction company based in Kansas, noted that there is much uncertainty about whether government-backed bonds will sell in the current market.

Interest Rates a Concern

Ken Ammon, the management district's deputy executive director, told National Geographic News that his agency will know by this summer—a few months before the September 25 decision date—whether it can go forward with the deal. "Our biggest concern is interest rates," Ammon said.

"We're hoping that in the very near future, [they] will come down." Lower interest rates would make it less expensive for the agency to pay back the loans it plans to receive by selling the bonds to investors.

Plan proponents are also hoping President Obama's new administration will steer federal money to the restoration effort. In 1989 Congress approved a plan for Everglades restoration projects to be jointly funded by Florida and the federal government. But while Florida has moved ahead with restoration work, federal money has been stalled.

Legal Challenges

Even if financial obstacles are overcome, a legal challenge looms.

The purchase plan would allow U.S. Sugar to lease a portion of the land at a reduced rate and keep farming for seven years—an arrangement that would give U.S. Sugar an unfair competitive edge, rival sugarcane grower Florida Crystals contends in a legal filing from December 2008.

And in January, Florida Crystals filed a complaint asking a judge to halt the deal, because, the company says, the South Florida Water Management District will be financially unable to meet its water-quality obligations if it buys the U.S. Sugar property.

But an existing state agreement with U.S. Sugar allows the management district to back out of the purchase if the expenditure would make it impossible for the agency to meet its responsibilities.

Van Lent, the Everglades Foundation scientist, thinks that, in the long run, buying the U.S. Sugar property is the best way to restore the Everglades.

"With the U.S. Sugar purchase, the restoration will begin much sooner," Van Lent said. "And we can have a more reliable plan than we ever could before."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.