2018 was a tough year for water in Florida. An enormous, toxic blue-green algae bloom engulfed most of Lake Okeechobee while a red tide afflicted the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic shores and wildlife.
Through it all, the Tribe’s Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) steadily monitored water flowing into and out of the reservations. Terms of a water compact with the state and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) prescribes and protects the Tribe’s right to use the water.
Additionally, the Tribe reports to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annually to satisfy terms of grants. The most recent reports, for 2018, were sent on Dec. 21.
In 1996 the Seminole Tribe of Florida was the first tribe on the East Coast of the U.S., and fifth nationwide, to receive Treatment as a State designation by the EPA for purposes of administering a water quality program.
ERMD’s mission is to protect and evaluate the Tribe’s land and water resources and to facilitate the wise use and conservation of these resources, so the department uses their expertise to manage the program. One of its responsibilities is to analyze water samples to measure the concentration of pollutants in the water, including phosphorus and other nutrients.
Big Cypress has 15 miles of canals, which get water from the SFWMD basins north and west of the reservation. Brighton Reservation’s water flows south from the Kissimmee River basin through the 21 miles of its canals. All water must meet state quality standards when it flows out of the reservations.
“What matters is that the Tribe doesn’t pollute its own land,” said Lisa Meday, ERMD water quality program specialist. “We are essentially in tandem with the state to meet the standards.”
In June, two months before toxic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, was found in Lake Okeechobee, ERMD water quality technicians discovered it flowing into a Brighton canal from the Kissimmee River basin north of the reservation and sampled it to prove it didn’t come from Tribal water.
“They were seed cells; all they need is sun and nutrients to grow,” Meday said. “We saw it flowing from upstream into Lake Okeechobee before it made headlines. We watched it fly by.”
Identifying the source of the nutrients is difficult and may include septic systems, wastewater treatment plants, agriculture, sludge trucked from these plants to the middle of the state for farming, sediments in canals and natural conditions. As phosphorus and other toxins get into the water, they can fall into the sediment and then be churned up whenever the water moves.
The concentrations of nutrients including phosphorus are lower leaving the reservations than coming in, which indicates the Tribe is not polluting the water and the nutrients are likely settling in the sediment. As stated in the compact, SFWMD recognizes that the Tribe is not responsible for treating storm water runoff discharged by others.
“Our water is cleaner when it leaves the reservation,” said Alex Johns, the Tribe’s natural resource director. “It’s simple science. When nutrient laden water goes across cow pastures, the marsh grass sucks it up, cows eat the grass and excrete the phosphorus. The cow is the perfect mechanism to harvest nutrients out of the water. The waste goes into land as more organic fertilizer.”
When calves are sold and shipped out of the reservation, they typically have about three to 10 pounds of phosphorus in their bodies. That phosphorus is shipped out west with the animals.
“Everyone thinks they are contaminating it, but the cows are cleaning up the water,” Johns said. “They eat way more phosphorus than they excrete; their bodies utilize it for bone growth and to maintain the skeleton.”
Johns believes the solution is to work with ranchers since they provide cattle that can clean the water systems before they get to the estuaries.
“People think we need to get rid of ranchers but that’s as far from the truth as we can get,” he said. “I’m not the smartest person in the world, but I could calculate how many acres of pasture and how many cows you need to get rid of the phosphorus problem. We know how much phosphorus a cow leaves Florida with; it’s simple but people want to overcomplicate it. The best way to do it is to do it naturally as nature intended.”
Rainfall is also a factor in water quality. In 2018, BC received about 50 inches of rainfall and Brighton had about 42 inches; both quantities were among the lowest in eight years. The rainy season in BC began in May and peaked in July; in Brighton it began and peaked in May.
When the Tribe’s water reserves are depleted by lack of rainfall, the reservations rely on water flowing in the canals. Indeed, for two thirds of 2018 water was taken from the canals for pasture irrigation and other uses. Drinking water is not affected since it comes from aquifers, not canals.
The flow of the canals is controlled by SFWMD which is responsible for 16 counties in the southern half of the state, not just the reservations.
SFWMD works with the reservations to ensure there is enough water in the canals. In BC, there is a water rights agreement in place that guarantees 47,000 acre feet of water per year. A U.S. Geological Survey stream gauging station is there to monitor the flow.
In Brighton, the SFWMD has committed to keep water levels high enough to replenish the water supply. Four new USGS stream gauging stations have been built at upstream and downstream locations.
“Now we can monitor the amount of water flowing to protect the Tribe’s water supply,” Meday said. “In the water compact, Brighton has water rights to 15 percent of the water in the Indian Prairie Basin and an additional share from the Lakeshore Perimeter Basin.”
For the Tribe, water quality is more than just the total amount of the phosphorus the water contains. Tribal water program also monitors the health and diversity of aquatic species and levels of pollutants in those species since many Tribal members enjoy hunting, fishing and trapping. To that end, the Tribe also monitors bacteria, metals, pesticides and herbicides to keep pace with new technologies