Swamped

Saving the Glades could mean screwing these guys.

By last year, the dream had all but fizzled. The Army Corps had completed exactly zero of the draft's 68 projects. The cost has soared from $7.8 billion to $10.9 billion, according to a report to Congress by the National Research Council. The largest planned reservoir — an arena-size rock pit right alongside U.S. 27 — is half-done, surrounded by huge piles of debris.

So last June, Crist put all the projects on hold and announced a bold new alternative. He'd been secretly negotiating with Florida Crystals' big rival next door, U.S. Sugar. The company agreed to sell the state 187,000 acres for $1.7 billion. Last month, all the parties involved agreed on a final sale, which the staggering economy scaled down by half.

The deal has been hailed nationally as a fresh new hope for the Everglades after another decade of failure. "It's a tremendous sea change," says Van Lent, the Everglades Foundation scientist. "We're never going back now."

But for Cantens and his firm, the deal looks an awful lot like a corporate bailout to a competitor deeply in debt. Crist, who took thousands in donations from sugar executives in his last campaign, agreed to give U.S. Sugar an inflated $7,400 per acre of land valued last year at $4,000.

Cantens says Florida Crystals isn't about to take the same kind of deal. "The state has nothing to offer us," he says. "And can you imagine what it would do to this region if we left?"

Cantens isn't talking ecology — he's talking economy. More than 30,000 people living south of Lake Okeechobee are desperately dependent on the sugar industry for jobs. "The economy out here is just ungodly bad. There's nothing else out here but us," Cantens says.

The former politician leads me to an industrial elevator inside the company's massive power plant, which burns bagasse, the leftover biomass from the sugar cane harvest. The building smells like caramelized sugar.

On the top story, we walk to a railing and lean over. Emerald fields of cane roll to the east and west horizons like an unbroken AstroTurf rug. The land is so flat and uncluttered that the U.S. Sugar mill in Clewiston, 20 miles to the northwest, is starkly etched against the blue sky like an urban skyline.

To an early pioneer in South Florida, it would look like a dream fulfilled — miles of rich agriculture instead of useless swamp. To a modern ecologist, it looks like a nightmare of pollution, destroyed ecosystems, and abuse.

Either way, it's not likely to change anytime soon.

"This is our company. This is Florida Crystals," Cantens says, sweeping his hands across the land toward the small towns a few miles north, clustered around Lake Okeechobee. "We're not going anywhere. These towns are depending on that."

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Pahokee

A few days later, I head to one of those towns to meet the people who have learned to make a living in the middle of the Glades.

Eighteen miles of twisting, two-lane highway northeast of Cantens' sugar-burning plant, Pahokee sprawls over a few acres between Lake Okeechobee and U.S. 98.

In a white house facing U.S. 98, Wayne Whitaker relaxes in a wooden rocking chair. He has lived in Pahokee for 50 years, working as a homebuilder and for the past year serving as mayor of this town of 6,500.

Whitaker knows that if nature had its way, his town probably wouldn't even exist. The evidence is right in his back yard.

The Hoover Dike, a 30-foot-high mound of earth separating Pahokee from Lake Okeechobee, rises just a football's toss from Whitaker's home.

We both puff a little while hiking up the slope. Whitaker's dull orange cowboy boots slide on the dry brown grass and he windmills his arms to keep his balance.

The mayor is a 64-year-old swamp rat. His first job, as a 16-year-old, was working on a lock and a canal near the Kissimmee River. For one boiling summer, he battled mud and mosquitoes to help dig the ditches that diverted water from Lake Okeechobee and dried up the Everglades.

"How 'bout that?" Whitaker gasps, reaching the dam's summit.

Dark brown water stretches from the bottom of the hill all the way to the horizon. The wind carves tiny whitecaps around a single boat heading south, skirting a few grassy islands rising from the shallows.

That gargantuan shallow lake — outsized only by Lake Michigan in North America, but just eight feet deep in most places — can also be deadly. It's a fact etched in the history of the towns that live in its shadow, such as Pahokee and its closest neighbors, South Bay and Belle Glade.

All three burgs were founded near the turn of the 20th Century, when the first Everglades drainage canals were dug. Hundreds of Midwestern farmers bought reclaimed land on promises the land would yield massive crops. Mostly, it yielded floods and disasters, but some farmers stuck around anyway.

In 1926, only a small earthen dike separated the people from the lake when the Great Miami Hurricane tore through. The storm ripped a half-mile hole in the dam, killing 400 settlers and leaving more than 35,000 homeless.

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