Questions abound over huge land purchase for Everglades

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist called it the ''missing link'' — a huge swath of sugar fields south of Lake Okeechobee long coveted by environmentalists who hope to reconnect the lake with the Everglades.

But the reality is that getting water from the lake to the Everglades won't be easy, and the land that the state will take over in its $1.75 billion purchase of the U.S. Sugar Corp. will become not a flowing stream, but a massive patchwork of dammed reservoirs, pollution treatment marshes and diesel-burning pumps.

Water managers say that even when all that work is done the Everglades could end up losing more water than it gained.

Florida officials say the sugar fields are the key to salvaging the state-federal Everglades restoration plan. But they don't have any studies to show exactly how the plan would work. No one can say exactly how the 187,000 acres will be used or how much any future plans may ultimately cost. Also unknown: how long the deal may delay the already backlogged restoration effort.

Any reclamation of sugar fields must wait at least six years; that's how long U.S. Sugar will be allowed to operate — a deadline that could be extended.

Still, environmental groups say it's worth the wait, that the governor's proposal does what the original Everglades plan did not — it promises enough water storage south of Lake Okeechobee to revive the Glades.

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