Water managers put Everglades matter on hold

Mounting financial concerns could pose renewed hurdles to Gov. Charlie Crist’s proposed $536 million Everglades restoration land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp.

The South Florida Water Management District will wait until next month to decide whether to extend the deadline on the contract to buy 73,000 acres from U.S. Sugar. The delay allows the Florida Supreme Court to rule on a pending legal challenge to the land deal.

In March, the district board also will be discussing the implications of a difficult budget situation, which could imperil the costly land deal. Property tax revenue has declined because of drops in home values.

The district board still can back out of the land deal if it is expected to become too much of a strain on providing core services such as flood control and protecting the water supply.

District Attorney Sheryl Wood said waiting until the board’s mid-March meeting still gives the district plenty of time to take action before the March 31 contract deadline.

The district faces, in addition to a tight budget, the expense of responding to newly proposed federal water pollution standards. It could cost billions of dollars to address those standards.

“I’m not panicking,” said District Board Member Shannon Estenoz, a vocal supporter of the U.S. Sugar deal. “Do we still need the land? Oh, yeah. ... Buying land is more important now than ever.”