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Florida Land Deal Will Boost Everglades Restoration

Environmental groups are praising a decision by the U.S. state of Florida to buy a vast tract of farmland to restore the Everglades wetlands. In Miami, VOA's Brian Wagner reports the deal aims to control water pollution and ensure fresh water supplies.

The $1.7 billion plan aims to fill a major hole in long-running efforts to restore the vast watershed in southern Florida. State government officials agreed to buy the land from U.S. Sugar Corporation, which will abandon its sugar cane fields and end operations after six years.

The cane fields have long cut off the natural flow of fresh water, from lakes in central Florida through the Everglades and into the Gulf of Mexico. Environmental groups say that water is needed to supply the Everglades National Park as well as public water sources.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist led talks for buying the 75,000 hectares.

"I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida and the people of America, than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration," he said.

The purchase involves nearly a quarter of the land set aside in a special farming area created more than 50 years ago, when engineers began draining parts of the Everglades wetlands.

Since then, U.S. Sugar and other cane growers have been criticized for sending polluted water into remaining wetlands.

Recently, Florida officials had tried to negotiate deals to buy back smaller portions of land from sugar growers.

John Adornato of the National Parks Conservation Association says the announcement of the huge deal is a welcome surprise.

"It is a lot of land, a huge amount of land that can greatly benefit and lead us to a successful Everglades restoration," he said.

Once restored, the Everglades will be able to trap vast quantities of rain water, reducing concerns about drought that have led to water usage restrictions in recent years.

Adornato says restoring more land also increases the ability of the Everglades to filter dirty rainfall run-off.

"The entire goal of Everglades restoration is to redirect those harmful discharges and turn them into beneficial flow for the Everglades," he added.

The state of Florida and U.S. Sugar are expected to negotiate final terms for the land deal by November. Environmental groups say they will be watching to ensure that it will benefit the wetlands.