STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, let's talk about a deal that was designed to save the Everglades. Five years ago, Florida announced the largest land purchase in the state's history - almost 300 square miles of sugar cane plantations in the midst of the Everglades' wetlands.
But as the economy worsened and opposition grew, officials settled for a much smaller parcel of land. Now, as NPR's Greg Allen reports, environmental groups are pressuring Florida's governor to revive the original deal.
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GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: South of Florida's Lake Okeechobee, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane thrive in what Jonathan Ullman, of the Sierra Club, describes as the heart of the Everglades.
JONATHAN ULLMAN: The Everglades actually begins at Shingle Creek, outside of Orlando.
ALLEN: That's nearly 200 miles to the north of this area, an expanse of marshland and shallow lakes owned by the state 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.
ULLMAN: What we want to do is have more water come south, be stored and cleaned up, so that it can be sent south to the Everglades.
ALLEN: For more than 20 years, environmental groups, Florida officials and the federal government have worked together on a massive undertaking - to restore the Everglades. A key part of that effort is re-creating 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 when then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced at a news conference that Florida had struck a deal to buy most of U.S. Sugar's Everglades holdings for $1.75 billion.
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GOV. CHARLIE CRIST: 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 key to true restoration.
ALLEN: 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 a seventh of the land on offer.
The contract included an important clause, though; one that for three years 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.
ULLMAN: You got to add more land. It's the only way.
ALLEN: 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. Gov. 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.
But 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 Sen. Joe Negron the best way to protect communities along the coast is to buy the U.S. Sugar land, and send the water south.
DAVID CULLEN: The deadline is upon us, but government can do amazing things when it wants to.
STATE SEN. JOE NEGRON: Let me interrupt you. How much is that going to cost to buy all that land?
CULLEN: All told?
CULLEN: One hundred and fifty-three thousand would be $1.13 billion.
NEGRON: And where's that money going to come from?
ALLEN: In South Florida, it's a skepticism shared by water-management officials, who say they already have enough land for current Everglades projects.
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ALLEN: 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. And he says he's looking forward to the day when more water from Lake Okeechobee runs south through the Everglades.
MARK LEHMAN: Everything will be better if they get it back to normal.
ALLEN: Environmental groups hope Gov. 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 non-exclusive option to buy the land for another seven years - a deadline that comes after the next gubernatorial election.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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