The Miccosukee Tribe on Friday called for a federal judge to force South Florida water managers to finish building a massive reservoir intended for Everglades restoration.
The tribe contends that the state's $1.75 billion bid to buy out U.S. Sugar derailed the long-promised reservoir in western Palm Beach County, violating an agreement to corral and clean up polluted water headed to the Everglades.
Water managers suspended construction of the 16,700-acre reservoir last month, just before Gov. Charlie Crist announced a deal to buy U.S. Sugar's vast holdings in a move expected to redefine Everglades restoration.
That leaves taxpayers paying reservoir contractors $1.9 million a month to stand by while water managers decide whether the structure fits into new plans to recreate the link between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
The reservoir is needed with or without the U.S. Sugar deal and delaying it causes more harm to what remains of the River of Grass, Miccosukee attorney Dexter Lehtinen said. Lehtinen called the state's U.S. Sugar proposal a "bait and switch" that threatens to set back Everglades restoration another decade.
"It's stopping restoration," Lehtinen said. "These guys make promises [and] it's always about what they are doing 10 years from now. It's not what they are doing now.
"They move on and the Everglades keep dying."
The South Florida Water Management District contends that if construction does not resume on the reservoir, the work done so far will fit into plans to create more filter marshes that clean water headed to the Everglades.
District spokesman Randy Smith released a statement Friday saying that the agency had not seen the motion the Miccosukee filed in federal court. He said the agency, charged with leading Everglades restoration, "remains committed to restoring the Everglades using all the resources available to the District."
Audubon of Florida, the National Parks Conservation Association and other environmental groups have hailed the proposed U.S. Sugar deal as an historic opportunity to craft a better rehab plan that more naturally restores flows of water to the Everglades. The Miccosukee legal challenge is "premature," said John Marshall, chairman of the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation, an environmental advocacy group.
"It's a whole new ballgame," Marshall said about the implications of the U.S. Sugar deal. "We're finally are getting around to doing it right."
The district plans to take on more debt to pay for the U.S. Sugar deal without raising taxes. The agency also proposes delaying and possibly dropping some Everglades restoration construction projects.
A district proposal discussed Thursday called for using money once envisioned for the reservoir for other Everglades projects.
Taxpayers already have invested about $250 million in the reservoir along U.S. 27 that has a price tag expected to hit $800 million.
The district in June stopped construction on it, citing concerns about spending more taxpayer dollars amid a lingering legal challenge over how the water would be used. The Natural Resources Defense Council filed the legal challenge on the reservoir the previous year, not to stop construction but to seek guarantees that the water would be used for Everglades restoration.
"The Tribe is concerned that this 'suspension' due to litigation is merely a pretext to indefinitely suspend completion of the [reservoir] because of a proposed land buy that was reportedly in the works for months before it was announced," according to the motion filed Friday.
The reservoir is needed to hold water that otherwise overwhelms stormwater treatment areas designed to clean water headed to the Everglades. The state has yet to meet the cleanup standards set in 1992, stemming from legal challenges filed by Lehtinen and the Miccosukee.
"Time, and delay, are the enemies of the Everglades," according to the tribe's motion.
The district board on June 30 authorized moving ahead with negotiations with U.S. Sugar. The U.S. Sugar deal calls for closing on the purchase by Nov. 30.
Andy Reid can be reached at email@example.com or 561-228-5504.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun