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Tribal water rights, issues remain a long game

The tribe continues to work on securing its Lake Okeechobee water rights for decades to come. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

As the new year kicks into high gear, work moves forward with state and federal agencies – particularly the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – on water issues that directly affect the Seminole Tribe.

Tribal leadership and staff at the Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) and the Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) juggle the complex task of interacting with the Corps – particularly as it relates to the intertwining of Lake Okeechobee water interests and Everglades restoration.

It’s important for the tribe because the trajectory of the Corps and other agencies can have huge implications for the health of cultural resources and the quality and availability of water on the Brighton and Big Cypress reservations.

The Corps dropped plans in 2021 for a reservoir north of Lake Okeechobee not far from the Brighton Reservation. The tribe fought against it for years with concerns of potential flooding damage and negative environmental impacts. The Corps’ is now moving toward other options – ones that, ostensibly, wouldn’t impact the tribe.

There’s another proposed reservoir, however, to be located south of the lake and east of the Big Cypress Reservation. The tribe is currently neutral about the project, but is monitoring its progress to make sure it’s done right and won’t cause harm to tribal assets.

Stacy D. Myers, senior scientist and liaison for HERO, is one of the point people who monitors the Corps’ proposals and stays connected with decision makers.

“What you’re seeing now is a big push to move toward these storage areas and reservoirs and there’s a mixed value for them,” Myers said. “They provide storage and potential water supply and potential water quality benefits, but it’s a far cry from the envisioned restoration of the Everglades.”

Myers said the tribe has long advocated for a preservation mentality.

“To preserve and make it functional, but not to create these highly engineered systems that [the Corps has] justified in their minds as being necessary since the watershed has been reduced,” he said.

Water compact, rights

Lake Okeechobee water issues and Everglades restoration won’t be solved anytime soon if history is a guide.

The multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) has been in work since 2000, headed up by the Corps and the South Florida Water Management District. For the tribe, CERP requires navigating a bureaucratic web that involves multiple agencies and stakeholders and dozens of projects, proposals and timelines.

But with the Brighton Reservation-area reservoir issue put to rest, the tribe is focused on maintaining its Lake Okeechobee water rights. The tribe’s water compact assures a certain amount of water allocation from the lake. Myers and the tribe are looking ahead to what the reservations will need 20, 50 or 100 years from now.

Apportionment levels have implications for agriculture, irrigation, cattle operations, citrus crops and new potential crops the tribe might embark on – like raising palm trees, for example. It also affects the scope of projects like new housing and parks.

The Corps’ latest update of its Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSUM), which affects water apportionment, has been moving through phases since 2018 and may be nearing completion later this year.

“The tribe’s position is we’re concentrating on water rights because there will be a real battle for water in the future in Florida,” Myers said. “We’re taking steps toward that with our position on LOSUM – that we have special user criteria given to us by the Corps – and also by ensuring that a volume of water necessary to maintain the reservations into the future is maintained.”

One recent appointment at the Corps that gives Myers and others hope is the 2021 hire of Jamie Pinkham by the Biden administration as principal deputy assistant secretary of the Corps for civil works. It carries promise because Pinkham is a member of the Pacific Northwest’s Nez Perce Tribe.

“[The Corps is] looking at how they can be more open and [are] listening to the tribes right now,” Myers said. “And that’s a benefit in and of itself.”

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at