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ERMD manages water levels in Big Cypress

BIG CYPRESS — In preparation for the possible landfall of Hurricane Dorian in early September, the Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) released water in canals across the reservations to lower water levels, thus avoiding the possibility of flooding due to excess rainfall.

To accomplish the task, the department worked with the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

The hurricane didn’t hit, the dry season started early and cattle owners needed water. But the water levels remained below normal heading into October.

Water on the reservations is usually managed by SFWMD and USACE, which both adhere to strict schedules.

Because of the unusual circumstances, ERMD petitioned the agencies to deviate from these water management schedules, assume control of the water moving through the reservation and restore seasonally appropriate water levels within Big Cypress.

Chris Self, ERMD water master, runs the E2 pump in Big Cypress in October. (Courtesy photo)

“We wanted the agencies to deliver more water into the reservation to give ERMD operations and maintenance staff the ability to move water through the system in a controlled manner,” said Kevin Cunniff, ERMD director.

“The agencies complied with our request by delivering more water into the reservation and adjusting downstream control structures to allow water to be retained within the reservation.”

The ERMD request for a deviation from the schedule was granted and the water flowed freely. The rehydration process, which began Oct. 4, took about a month to complete.

The rehydration operation required a careful, strategic orchestration of pumping water to raise canal levels, manipulating on-reservation water control structures to keep it in a location and allowing for gravity to ultimately disperse the water into the ground and surficial aquifer.

There was ongoing coordination with the agencies, which were quick to respond to ERMD’s requests.

The deviation ended Nov. 6 when ERMD deemed that restoring optimum water levels throughout the reservation had been achieved.

The E2 pump in Big Cypress feeds water into the north feeder by the S190 structure. (Courtesy photo)

“This is the first time the Tribe was able to autonomously manage water operations on any reservation in this manner,” said Cunniff. “Now that we have demonstrated the capacity to do this, it is a significant step forward for the department and for the Tribe. We very effectively coordinated with both agencies, which were cooperative and allowed ERMD to critically assess and direct where the water needed to be within the system.”

The deviation from the agencies’ regular water schedule was an extraordinary circumstance. They still have a schedule they need to keep, but now the agencies know the Tribe can manage its own water.

“We are helping to assert sovereignty for the Seminole Tribe of Florida by demonstrating our capability to manage these water operations,” Cunniff said. “It is a new level of service we can provide to the Tribe to protect and enhance Tribal resources.

The result is now we better understand how we can manage water operations to meet the Tribe’s needs in the future.

This is a very powerful tool we have to use; we are very pleased about all of this.”

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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