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Dauray defends his vote against U.S. Sugar purchase

By Staff | Feb 3, 2009

At its regular meeting on Tuesday, the Sanibel City Council welcomed South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) board member Charles Dauray, who attended the meeting at the request of the Council. Dauray represents Lee, Collier, Hendry and Charlotte counties on the SFWMD Board.

Dauray’s invitation to Sanibel was sparked by his recent vote against the purchase of 187,000 acres of U.S. Sugar lands, which many believe is paramount to restoring the natural flow of water from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades.

Despite Dauray’s no vote, the $1.34 billion land purchase agreement passed by a margin of 4-to-3. Sanibel City Councilors wanted to know why Dauray chose to vote against the purchase.

Touted by Florida Governor Charlie Crist as an important land acquisition akin to the creation of such national landmarks as Yellowstone Park, the purchase agreement between U.S. Sugar and the South Florida Water Management District contains an “escape clause,” which allows the SFWMD to back out of the deal before the September 2009 closing deadline if financing becomes a problem – which many say could very well be the case with the State of Florida facing a $3.4 billion budget shortfall and the economy continuing its nosedive.

The district reportedly plans to finance the purchase through a bond issue to be repaid by the taxpayers of the 16 counties that make up the South Florida Water Management District.

The deal will also allow U.S. Sugar to lease back the lands for $50 per acre, and continue operations there for another seven years – a measure that competitors have argued against as an unfair government subsidy.

Despite his vote against the U.S. Sugar deal in December, Dauray told the Council that he ultimately supports the land purchase.

“But I don’t support the timing,” he said. “It’s a huge obligation with very bad timing.”

Dauray went on to explain to the Council the many different factors that went into his decision to vote against the purchase. Citing everything from appraisals that have estimated the land’s value at up to $400 million less than the contracted price, to the economic impact the purchase would have on the people of Clewiston who depend on sugar farming for survival, Dauray said that the Everglades restoration project was a huge undertaking that had never before been attempted in the history of the world.

In addition to the actual exorbitant price of purchase, and the seven-year continued operation of U.S. Sugar, Dauray said that he was worried about the cost of the actual engineering project to restore the flow of water to Lake Okeechobee.

“What happens if funding is not available?” he asked, adding that environmental concerns associated with such a large-scale construction project would also be an issue. “As the Everglades have been drained of water, wildlife has been moving inland. If we were to put in a contrivance, and put water back where Mother Nature intended, the animals would lose the habitat that has been artificially created. It could tie us up in court forever.”

Dauray said that despite the initial elation among environmentalists about the U.S. Sugar purchase, it could be decades before any positive environmental impact would be realized.

“We could be looking at 40 years,” he said. And any number of years is much too long in Dauray’s eyes. “We need to get something done now,” he warned. “We need help now, to relieve pressure on the estuary system now. Everyone is in a hurry except when it comes to the big plan. I don’t think all the players have played yet.”

Dauray said that he had a firm understanding of and sympathy for the water releases from Lake Okeechobee that have polluted the waters of the Caloosahatchee River and led to outbreaks of red drift algae that chased tourists away from local beaches.

“Garbage in, garbage out,” he said.

However, he pointed out that the releases were necessary to protect against flooding after several hurricanes dumped copious amounts of rain into the lake, raising water levels to extremely dangerous heights.

“It’s a matter of public safety,” said Dauray. “If it gets to 17 feet, they’re going to release water.”

When asked about the possibility of cleaning up Lake Okeechobee to minimize the environmental effects when releases are necessary, Dauray said that, too, was an enormous undertaking.

“Dredging is a possibility to get the muck out,” said Dauray. “But then, you’re looking at particle suspension. And you have to understand that much of the contamination is chemical, from DDT that was used to get insects off of cows.”

Although the purchase agreement with U.S. Sugar is pretty much a “done

deal,” Dauray said he still hopes for a more financially appropriate, and more timely solution to the water problems that now exist.

“We know what we want to do, but it’s what we’re able to afford to do as taxpayers,” he said. “About the best we can do within our means is to continue to emphasize your deep concern for the area you have. We’ll never go back to exactly what it was. I wish we had a magic wand and kettle of gold and that we could take care of it today. But we’ve got a hefty struggle ahead of us.”

Dauray urged those who wanted to help in that struggle to pay attention to the activities of the South Florida Water Management District.

“Not today, but coming up, keep yourselves informed,” he added.