South of Florida's Lake Okeechobee, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane thrive in the heart of one of the world's largest wetlands. The Everglades stretches from the tip of the peninsula to central Florida, north of Lake Okeechobee.
"The Everglades actually begins at Shingle Creek, outside of Orlando," says Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club.
That's nearly 200 miles north of the agricultural land that Ullman and other environmentalists say is crucial to state and federal efforts to restore the wetlands area to a healthy ecosystem.
Five years ago, Florida officials announced a deal many believed would do just that. It was a plan to buy nearly 300 square miles of Everglades land owned by U.S. Sugar. But then, reality set in: The economy worsened and political opposition grew, forcing state officials to settle for a much smaller parcel.
To understand why the land is so important to restoring the ecosystem, a place to start is a storm water treatment area owned by the South Florida Water Management District. It's an expanse of marshland and shallow lakes with one main purpose: to scrub phosphorus from the water flowing south from the sugar cane fields.
It's large, nearly 17,000 acres. But Ullman says it's just a fraction of what's needed to restore the Everglades to a healthy ecosystem. "What we want to do," he says, "is have more water come south, be stored and cleaned up so it can be sent south to the Everglades."
'You've Got To Add More Land'
For more than 20 years, environmental groups, Florida officials and the federal government have worked together to restore the Everglades. A key part of that effort is recreating the historic flow of water out of Lake Okeechobee south, through land that decades ago was drained and converted into farmland, mostly for sugar.
It's a vision that received a big boost in 2008 when then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced that Florida had struck a deal to buy most of U.S. Sugar's Everglades holdings for $1.75 billion. At a news conference held under a tent in a wildlife refuge, Crist said, "I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida and the people of America as well as our planet than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the true key to restoration."
But, it was not to be. As the recession took hold, the state found itself short of money. Two years after it was announced, Florida closed on a much smaller contract, buying just one-seventh of the land on offer. The contract included an important clause though: For three years, it gave Florida the exclusive option to buy some or all of the U.S. Sugar land. That exclusive option expires this week.
Recently, 38 environmental groups in Florida sent a letter to the state's current governor, Rick Scott, asking him to carry through on the contract signed by his predecessor. Ullman says this deal remains the key to fixing the Everglades. "You've got to add more land," he says. "It's the only way."
In Florida, the financial picture has improved over the last two years. Tax revenues are up and the state has about $3 billion in reserves.
But while the money may be there, the political will is not. Scott, a Republican elected with strong Tea Party support, has cut funding for land acquisition. In fact, his administration is now moving to sell some state land in conservation areas.
Eyes On The Long Game
Recently, there's been a new call to restore Lake Okeechobee's flow south through the Everglades — and it's coming from people who live on Florida's Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
Weeks of heavy rainfall this year forced the Army Corps of Engineers to release large amounts of water from Lake Okeechobee down waterways to nearby coastal communities. The water, rich in nutrients from agricultural runoff, has caused algae blooms, some toxic.
At a state Senate hearing in Tallahassee, David Cullen of the Sierra Club told lawmakers the best way to protect communities along the coasts is to buy the U.S. Sugar land and send the water south. "The deadline is upon us," Cullen said, "but government can do amazing things when it wants to." Cullen said the cost to buy the rest of the U.S. Sugar land, more than 150,000 acres, would be $1.13 billion.
Committee Chairman Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, one of the affected communities, interrupted him asking, "And where's that money going to come from?"
In South Florida, it's a skepticism shared by water management officials who say they already have enough land for current Everglades projects.
At one of the stormwater treatment lakes in the Everglades, Mark Lehman launches his small skiff for a day of fishing. He says these stormwater ponds can be good places to find largemouth bass.
He says he's looking forward to the day when more water from Lake Okeechobee runs south through the Everglades. "Fishing and everything will be better if they get it back to normal," Lehman says.
Environmental groups hope Scott may still act to buy some of the U.S. Sugar land before the state's exclusive option expires later this week. But they also have their eyes on the long game. After this week, Florida has a nonexclusive option to buy the land for another seven years. That's a deadline that comes after the next gubernatorial election.