|Written by Marjorie Holt|
|Friday, March 19 2010|
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One possible alternative: Pay for a big chunk -- perhaps even all -- of the $536 million price tag in cash.
But coming up with cash up front could require serious, and politically messy, surgery on the South Florida Water Management District's $1.5 billion budget.
An internal ``financial options'' memo produced this month by Thomas Olliff, a Water District assistant executive director, contemplates an array of potential cuts: canceling or postponing nearly a dozen existing Everglades restoration projects, slashing salaries, selling a district plane, closing a laboratory, selling state-owned land, even downsizing the deal again by selling off thousands of acres of U.S. Sugar citrus groves.
Water managers stressed that the memo -- produced, Olliff wrote, with ``no filter'' -- reflected nothing more than a laundry list intended to help governing board members decide whether the agency can still afford the deal.
``What you're looking at is really cocktail napkin noodling and doodling about everything and anything that might be done, if you wanted to do that,'' said board Chairman Eric Buermann, who joined Crist Thursday on a tour of the St. Lucie River, which has been trashed by polluted releases from Lake Okeechobee.
Crist's deal, already downsized twice by the deteriorating economy, has been under siege from rival growers Florida Crystals, the Miccosukee Tribe and some state lawmakers. They contend it amounts to a bailout for a struggling and politically influential agriculture giant, and would push back restoration efforts by years or decades.
Tribe attorney Dexter Lehtinen brandished the memo during a federal court hearing this week on Everglades cleanup progress, calling it evidence that water managers would have to raid critical projects to afford the deal.
``What I see on this list is an order to buy the sugar land, no matter how much it costs,'' Lehtinen said. ``It's shocking to say the least.''
Henry Dean, a former district executive director who is now a consultant for Florida Crystals and the Florida Sugar Cane Cooperative, said the cuts ``would have devastating effects.''
The list includes three Miami-Dade projects: $35 million intended to overhaul the C-111 canal, which diverts fresh water from Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, and $7 million to restore freshwater flows to Biscayne Bay.
It also raises the option of selling $60 million in land the state has spent years acquiring in the Bird Drive basin area of West Miami-Dade -- site of a proposed water preserve. Also potentially on the sales block: the L-8 reservoir in western Palm Beach County, rock pits the district purchased in 2003 for more than $200 million in a deal tainted by kickbacks that put two Palm Beach County commissioners in jail.
The Palm Beach Post reported this week that water in the pits, intended to supply both marshes and suburbs, was too brackish for wetlands. Water utilities in Palm Beach and Broward are pondering digging another pit nearby to enhance supplies.
Water District board member Shannon Estenoz, who requested the ``financial options'' breakdown, said she wanted raw numbers so that board members -- all nine appointed by Crist -- can set priorities rather than put the agency's staff in the crosshairs.
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