The proposed purchase of vast tracts of U.S. Sugar Corp. farmland holds such great promise for restoring the Everglades that it would be a mistake to order work to resume on a project begun before the deal was struck, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno rejected a request by the Miccosukee Indian Tribe, whose members live in the Everglades, that he order construction to continue on a giant reservoir in western Palm Beach County. Work was halted on the project in May while the state contended with another lawsuit.
Since then, Gov. Charlie Crist announced a deal hailed by environmental groups to buy 187,000 acres from U.S. Sugar for $1.75 billion. The acquisition would simultaneously end a key source of pollutants that have severely damaged the Everglades and create a huge new area for restoration efforts.
Moreno, who oversees a 20-year-old federal lawsuit aimed at rescuing the Everglades, declined to order the unfinished reservoir to be built, in part because of the planned sugar buyout.
"Logically speaking, the most successful long-term solution to Everglades pollution may be to buy out the polluters, and currently that option appears viable," Moreno said in an order signed late Wednesday.
But Moreno cautioned that if the sugar deal falls through — "past promises have not been timely kept," he wrote — the judge would not hesitate to use his authority to ensure Everglades restoration isn't abandoned.
"Delay may indeed be the enemy of the Everglades, but paradoxically, there is no quick fix for its problems," he wrote.
An attorney for the South Florida Water Management District said at a court hearing earlier this week that the sugar purchase would be jeopardized if Moreno ordered work to resume on the 25-square-mile reservoir, which has already cost $200 million. The next phase was estimated to add $300 million to that price tag.
"I don't think there's any doubt that they need the funds for the acquisition right now," said David Guest, attorney for several environmental groups that opposed the tribe on the reservoir issue. "This ruling makes it clear that there is a full judicial endorsement, that this acquisition of U.S. Sugar is the best big-picture, long-term solution."
The water district and state environmental officials issued a joint statement praising Moreno for recognizing the "monumental opportunity" to save the Everglades through the sugar purchase and pledging to "continue to work collaboratively with all parties" in the overall effort.
Further complicating the issue is a separate challenge by the National Resources Defense Council to the permits for the Palm Beach reservoir over whether its water would be used exclusively for the Everglades. That case is still pending before another federal judge, and Moreno also cited that as a reason to reject the tribe's motion.
Miccosukee attorney Dexter Lehtinen said he was heartened that Moreno promised to allow the tribe to return to court to restart work on the reservoir depending on how the sugar purchase and legal challenge turn out.
"We are pleased that the judge leaves the question open for review over the next few months as new facts develop," Lehtinen said.
The water district is aiming to close the sugar buyout by Nov. 30, although its attorney Kirk Burns said it could take a bit longer. If the purchase goes through, it's unclear if the reservoir would be completed in its current location or built somewhere on the sugar property.