BRIGHTON — After a lifetime of service to his tribe, Jack Smith Jr. retired from the Seminole Water Commission in
Smith, 73, served as Brighton Councilman in 1987 when the Water Rights Compact between the Seminole Tribe of
Florida, the State of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District (the District) was created. Smith signed the compact in his capacity as councilman.
In 1988, Tribal Council created the Water Management Office with Smith as its Brighton representative. About a year later, the council created the Seminole Water Commission to oversee the water office, which later evolved into the Environmental Resources Management Office (ERMD). Smith continued his tenure on the Tribal Council until 2001 and was appointed to the Water Commission in 2008. The Water Commission consists of seven members: two each from Hollywood, Big Cypress and Brighton and one from Immokalee.
“We didn’t have any control of the flow before the compact,” Smith said. “We have since improved the flow through the reservations.”
“The idea of the compact started in my time,” said Jim Shore, Tribal Council general counsel. “When there was flooding, we would be flooded in Brighton because property owners north of us opened their culverts to drain excess water and flood us. During droughts, they would close those culverts and we would be without water.”
When Shore began working with the tribe in 1981, the tribe had already filed a lawsuit against the state. After a change in leadership in Tallahassee, the state offered to settle with the tribe. Instead of dealing with drought and flooding, the tribe wanted to handle the water flowing through the reservations, if landowners would agree not to flood or keep water from them. Shore said it took a few years before the compact was signed.
“They figured we weren’t going anywhere so they decided we should work it out,” Shore said. “The District, Florida’s attorney general, and Timer Powers, a representative from the governor’s office, were all involved. The Water Commission is like our own District with rules and regulations that control water on the reservations. Council was supportive of the effort that we would have more stable availability of water. In the long run, that’s what the compact did. Now we have a working relationship with the District and the state.”
Smith had a lasting impact on the Water Commission, even before he joined it as a commissioner.
“Jack is one of the pioneers who knows the flow of the water on the land,” said Brighton Councilman Larry Howard. “I am sure he educated others who served alongside him for all those years. He is an active person to this day. I appreciate him for the time he dedicated to the tribe.”
When the water compact was written, ERMD senior scientist Stacy D. Myers worked for the District as a liaison between the District and the tribe. He said the compact is a unique legal document and is the only one that exists east of the Mississippi River.
Water compacts are more common in western tribes. They are based on The Winters Doctrine, a Supreme Court decision in 1908 which gives tribes the rights to all waters that arise on, border, traverse or are encompassed within their reservations.
“The compact reflects the special status of the Seminole Tribe and entitles them to original water rights,” Myers said. “What is unique is it establishes these rights which differ substantially from rights of other Florida citizens.”
As a result, the compact allowed the tribe to develop ERMD, the Water Commission and empower Tribal Council to administer its own water code.
“Jack is a wealth of knowledge. He has tremendous memory for things that occurred in the past,” Myers said. “He has a very good understanding of the water resources on the reservations and is a talented guy.”
All tribal development and infrastructure improvements that have to do with water go through the Water Commission, which submits a detailed annual work plan to the District to notify it of the tribe’s projects.
Kevin Cunniff, ERMD director, said the tribe has a unique relationship with the land and has been intimately tied to water for its survival.
“It is the lifeblood of the culture,” Cunniff said. “Its cultural aspect should supersede any government agency. There is an inherent right of the tribe for water use.”
Since the 1980s, the tribe’s standard of living and degree of development have changed significantly. All of the
development on the reservations since then was accomplished because of the water compact.
“Jack was a key ally and was extremely supportive in what it would assert for the tribe regarding sovereignty and self determination,” Cunniff said. “He helped usher in a lot of development and served as a tribal watchdog. The commission assures the tribe is protecting its water resources for seven generations.”
During his approximately eight years on the Water Commission, Amos Tiger has seen big changes, including more tribal government projects and Everglades restoration. He said anything the state does that involves water traveling through the reservation goes through the Water Commission.
Tiger said the commission’s work used to be just about housing, but now it also addresses algae blooms and other things that come out of Lake Okeechobee. The bottom line is the tribe has to make sure water running through the reservation leaves as clean as it can be.
“We have good people in the ERMD offices that work with us and keep us informed,” he said.
Smith has dealt with governmental issues for his entire career, starting with Tribal Council.
“He has been an integral part of the tribe,” Tiger said. “Jack’s been an essential part of the commission and has come up with a lot of ideas over the years. He’s been instrumental in all this stuff.”
Smith’s contribution to the tribe is apparent to those who worked with him over the years.
“Jack will really be missed,” Myers said. “The uniqueness of Jack is that he is well balanced at everything; agriculture, wildlife and water resources. He has a good breadth of knowledge and understanding for all those disciplines and is leaving a great legacy.”
“Jack is a man of many trades. He is a cattle owner, served in the military and is on the board of the Florida Seminole Veterans Foundation,” Councilman Howard said. “He comes from a pedigree of leadership. He’s someone I looked up to growing up and I still look up to him today.”
Smith’s plans for the future include tending to his cattle and spending time with the family.
What was the best part of serving on the Water Commission?
“Getting more access to water for cattle and people,” he said.