Everglades restoration may be easier in new Big Sugar deal

If water managers approve the smaller, cheaper version of Gov. Charlie Crist's Big Sugar land deal Wednesday, they won't be done dealing.

New tweaks in the $536 million offer to buy 73,000 acres from the U.S. Sugar Corp. would give water managers more time and flexibility to cut follow-up land deals — most likely with rival grower Florida Crystals — to improve Everglades restoration projects.

"This puts us in a much better bargaining position in any future negotiations," said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District.

The district's governing board, which met Monday to discuss the deal and must approve it, is expected to vote Wednesday or Thursday.

While approval isn't a lock, criticism has eased since the governor – bowing to a declining economy and rising political pressure – announced in April that he had scaled back his original $1.34 billion bid to acquire 181,000 acres of U.S. Sugar's farmland. The new deal reduced the land, and cost, by more than half.

"We're really close to doing the right thing for the right reasons, but I am concerned about the timing of it," said Charles Dauray, a board member from Southwest Florida who had voted against the earlier deal.

Beyond the bottom line, other key changes were hammered out during contract negotiations since Crist modified the original deal – most notably, a new "exclusive" three-year option to buy some or all of U.S. Sugar's remaining 107,000 acres at $7,400 an acre.

Water managers acknowledged they wouldn't be able to afford much, if any, of that land. That was underlined when they spent half of Monday's daylong meeting outlining plans to cut costs, cap staff raises, prioritize projects and shift funds to cover gaps.

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