Tack on another $12 million to the taxpayers' tab for the cost of a massive, unfinished reservoir rendered obsolete by a proposed half-billion-dollar Everglades-restoration land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp.
A suggested $12 million settlement to terminate the construction contract of the city-sized project in western Palm Beach County pushes the total reservoir cost to almost $280 million.
The South Florida Water Management District in June 2008 stopped construction on the 16,700-acre reservoir the same month Gov. Charlie Crist announced plans to buy U.S. Sugar land to store water needed to replenish the Everglades.
The district now contends that the location of the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, west of U.S. 27, doesn't fit in with Everglades restoration plans being reshaped by the still-pending U.S. Sugar deal.
Critics of the U.S. Sugar land deal point to the unfinished reservoir as evidence that the blockbuster land buy diverts money from other stalled projects, delaying help for the Everglades.
"It's a waste of money for the public and a disaster for the Everglades," said Dexter Lehtinen, Everglades advocate and attorney for the Miccosukee Tribe, which has gone to court to stop the U.S. Sugar deal. "We are going backward with restoration."
When the U.S. Sugar deal was announced last year, South Florida taxpayers already had invested about $250 million to start building the reservoir. The district then paid the contractor, Barnard Parsons Joint Venture, about $13 million from June to December 2008 to stand by while the agency decided whether the reservoir construction should proceed along with the U.S. Sugar deal.
The district initially blamed a legal challenge filed by an environmental group for stopping construction on the reservoir. After the U.S. Sugar deal became public, the district decided that the reservoir construction in its current design should not continue and the district negotiated a $12 million termination settlement with Barnard Parsons. Barnard Parsons had sought about $26 million, according to the district. The district's governing board is to vote on the proposed settlement Thursday.
District officials contend that taxpayer money wasn't wasted on the reservoir project. The land still could be used as a stormwater treatment area or a shallower reservoir that would better fit in with the plan to store, clean and redirect water flows to the Everglades, they say.
Completing the reservoir would have cost at least another $400 million, according to district estimates.
Crist's deal with U.S. Sugar calls for the district to pay $536 million to U.S. Sugar for 73,000 acres that would be used to build reservoirs and treatment areas, intended to restore water flows from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. The deal gives the district a 10-year option to buy another 107,000 acres from U.S. Sugar.
A judge's ruling last month, in a legal challenge to the financing plan, allowed the deal to move forward. The Miccosukee Tribe plans to appeal to the Florida Supreme Court. The district has until June 2010 to borrow the money it needs to close on the deal with U.S. Sugar.
Andy Reid can be reached at abreid@SunSentinel.com or 561-228-5504.