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Sugar firms to leave key Everglades land

A third company is holding out, refusing to budge from a plantation leased from the state that will be a key to restoring the River of Grass.

Published April 30, 2004

Two of the three sugar companies that were refusing to vacate land crucial to the Everglades restoration project have given up the fight, state officials announced Thursday.

U.S. Sugar and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida dropped plans to remain on thousands of acres of the old Talisman Sugar Plantation they lease from the state.

That leaves only one holdout, Florida Crystals, standing in the way of the state's plans for replumbing the River of Grass using the Talisman property, state officials said.

Florida Crystals spokesman Jorge Dominicis did not return calls seeking comment.

Environmental activists who rarely speak well of sugar executives hailed the two companies. They also praised Gov. Jeb Bush and his new Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Colleen Castille, for persuading the companies to back down.

"I am hopeful other sugar companies will follow suit and provide the same collaborative support required to complete Everglades restoration," Bush said in a prepared statement.

The South Florida Water Management District repeatedly notified the sugar companies to vacate the land by April 2005. Florida Crystals officials said the notices don't meet the strict contractual requirements for terminating the lease and they're not moving off their 20,000 acres.

Initially the other two sugar concerns were going along but have now agreed to move. Water district executive director Henry Dean said Thursday there have been no negotiations with Florida Crystals officials.

"I hope we can reach an amicable agreement," Dean said.

Five years ago Florida spent $130-million to buy the 50,000-acre sugar plantation south of Lake Okeechobee from the St. Joe Co. Bush called Talisman then "the linchpin of Everglades restoration."

Florida spent a century draining the Everglades for farms and homes. What's left is about half the original size. The once leisurely flow now depends on canals, pumps and levees to get rid of rainwater as fast as possible to avoid flooding urban areas.

In 1999, state and federal officials unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan to return the Everglades to a semblance of its old self. The plan requires capturing that water before it flows to the sea, rerouting some of it to the Everglades and saving the rest for South Florida's booming population.

That will require creating several places to store water, and that's where Talisman comes in. The plan calls for the state and federal governments to begin building a large reservoir there that would take in excess water from Lake Okeechobee during the rainy season and hold it for release into the Everglades during the dry season.

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