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Saving Everglades: Who Should Pay?

Court to decide next month if sugar farmers must pay more to fix shallow swamplands

An unprecedented consensus has emerged in Florida over the need to take action to save the Everglades.

But the fragile alliance between environmentalists and sugar farmers could splinter anew as the estimated price tag for Everglades restoration rockets toward $5 billion.

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Both generally agree that steps must be taken to aid the region's decimated ecosystem - an expanse of shallow water and sawgrass 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. But there is no concrete understanding yet of who will pay.

Now that there is agreement to act, environmentalists are worried there won't be enough money to complete the job. Sugar farmers, meanwhile, are concerned they'll get stuck holding a lion's share of the tab.

Last November, the sugar industry spent $22.7 million to defeat a statewide referendum that sought to levy a penny-a-pound tax on raw Florida sugar over the next 25 years. It would have raised $900 million for Everglades restoration projects, including efforts to eliminate fertilizer runoff from sugar fields and to restore the natural flow of water to the Everglades' "river of grass."

The Everglades in the past provided prime habitat for birds and other wildlife and served to recharge the Biscayne Aquifer, the region's primary source of drinking water. But today, after decades of flood control, farming, and urban sprawl, the population of wading birds is down 95 percent, and saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean is seeping into water wells.

Another referendum, though, did pass, requiring that Everglades polluters be held primarily responsible for repairing the damage they caused to the ecosystem. The environmental community generally views the measure as a means to gain added leverage on the sugar industry to pay more for the restoration.

Sugar farmers have already pledged to contribute $232 million over 20 years to the cleanup. They say that amount is more than enough to cover the cost of preventing fertilizer runoff and cleaning up past pollution.

The issue of whether sugar farmers should have to pay more is pending before the Florida Supreme Court, with a decision expected in September.

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Analysts say a decision either way could trigger the same kind of bitter litigation over funding that prevented Everglades restoration in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s.

"We're just laying back in the weeds right now, waiting for that court to make its decision," says Thom Rumberger, general counsel of Save Our Everglades, an environmental group.

Robert Buker, senior vice president of US Sugar Corporation in Clewiston, Fla., says that Everglades environmentalists have become obsessed with raising money from the sugar industry. "They have shifted from being pro-environment to being pro-taxation," Mr. Buker says. "It seems they lost their focus."

The sugar executive warns that if environmentalists attempt to push the industry too far, sugar farmers may move to renegotiate a 1993 agreement that calls for tough water-quality standards for irrigation runoff from their fields.

He says his farms now are releasing runoff water that's cleaner than rain that falls on his fields. And Buker says it would be unfair to require farmers to do a better job of producing clean water than Florida rain clouds do.

In the meantime, the National Audubon Society is proposing an auction system to raise as much as $100 million a year from foreign sugar growers seeking to sell their product in the United States.

Audubon President John Flicker says the US government could auction the right to some 40 countries to sell their sugar in the highly regulated American market. US sugar prices are generally 10 cents per pound higher than world prices, so foreign producers realize a windfall when granted access to the American market.

Mr. Flicker says President Clinton could enact an auction by executive order, and most of the windfall could flow to an Everglades cleanup fund rather than into the pockets of foreign sugar producers.

"It is a market-based solution ... that allows everyone to join together in an effort to solve something," Flicker says. "We think this can bring the environmentalists and the sugar industry together in a common solution."

Industry officials disagree. They say the auction concept is inconsistent with US trade agreements. The US effort in the world sugar market has been aimed at nudging foreign producers toward ending government subsidies that artificially deflate the price of sugar. For the US to hold an auction would send the wrong signal. "This would be a step backward," says Buker.

America's sugar refineries also oppose the auction idea. "We think it would add uncertainty to the market," says Nicholas Kominus, president of the US Cane Sugar Refiners' Association in Washington.

Some neutral analysts in Washington believe the proposal faces an uphill fight within the Clinton administration.

There is no timetable for action. But Flicker says any delay means that much less money for the Everglades. "This would be a way to put in place potentially the largest single funding source for Everglades restoration, a funding source that would not cost taxpayers, consumers, or domestic sugar growers anything," he says.

In addition to the sugar industry, tax dollars from the federal, state, and local governments are expected to fund most of the work to restore the Everglades.

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