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Tribe gains control of BC wetlands, saving millions

BIG CYPRESS — Starting in the 1990s, the U.S. government aimed to restore the water system on the Big Cypress Reservation with a project that was supposed to rehydrate wetlands, improve water quality and enhance water storage capacity. Instead, the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation Water Conservation Project never worked as intended and became a costly albatross for the Seminole Tribe.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized the water system in 1996 [and] built it in the 2000s in a phased approach,” said Paul Backhouse, the Seminole Tribe’s Heritage and Environment Resources Office (HERO) senior director and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. “It’s rubbish, it doesn’t work. We finally got them to deauthorize it which means the tribe can use the land to do with what they want.”

The water conservation plan, also known as the Critical Project, was officially deauthorized Dec. 27, 2020, when former President Donald Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, after it passed Congress.

“The design of the project proved to be fatally flawed and the tribe never realized any of the intended benefits while contributing millions of dollars for its construction and maintenance,” said Kevin Cunniff, Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD) director.

The tribe and Corps split the cost of the project, which stretched into the tens of millions. It was supposed to include four large basins to hold water and provide better quality of water treatment before sending it out of the reservation through BC’s canal system. Only three of the basins, also known as yellow gate facilities, were built on several thousands of acres of land on the reservation.

“The greater time you have water on land, the better it is,” Cunniff said. “Holding water within natural lands was to be an effective way to prevent excess nutrients from going downstream.”

An inspection of the basins takes place in February 2020. (Courtesy photo)

HERO senior scientist and liaison Stacy D. Myers was involved at the inception of the project 20 years ago when he worked for the South Florida Water Management District as a liaison between the district and the tribe.

The Corps was responsible for the engineering of the project.

“My job was to look at the viability of the project,” Myers said. “It was poorly designed and not well thought out.”

Despite Myers’ reservations, the project was approved and went forward. It was supposed to hold water, but it never did. The pumps were located near the outflow canal, so water in the basins went directly into the canal without any treatment.

ERMD regularly analyzes water samples to measure concentration of pollutants in the water, including phosphorus and other nutrients.

“Our system is about knowing what comes in and how it leaves the reservation,” Cunniff said. “Water coming in is already high in phosphorus and nitrogen. We tried to keep them in the natural areas identified as being the project footprint.”

The first two basins were constructed in 2008 and 2013. After the third yellow gate facility was completed in 2017, it was clear the project wasn’t working and the tribe began seeking deauthorization. The community perceived the project as the tribe shouldering the responsibility to clean up water from other users.

An overview of the Army Corps’ basins on the Big Cypress Reservation. Basins 1, 4 and 2 were completed in 2008, 2013 and 2017; basin 3 was never built. (Courtesy image)

“They are right,” Cunniff said. “The water coming in is problematic and the tribe has spent a lot of money to clean it. This has been a source of contention for the last 20 years. It’s why the tribe continued to pursue deauthorization.”

With deauthorization, the money being spent annually has been stopped in its tracks.

“The real success story is we got rid of the wasteful project and stopped the bleeding,” Myers said. “It was hemorrhaging.”

“The tribe will save about half a million dollars a year on maintenance costs and is no longer answerable to the [Corps] about water going through BC,” Backhouse added. “The project was an abject failure, it never held water. The work of getting it deauthorized is very important. It will save significant money.”

In addition to the financial benefit, the deauthorization also removes the Army Corps’ presence and direct influence on tribal lands in the project’s footprint. The tribe now has the authority to take full responsibility for its water control projects.

“It goes to self-government, self-determination and sovereignty,” Cunniff said. “The tribe can determine how they want to use that land in the future. The land has intrinsic cultural and traditional value. It will be used for the betterment and protection of the tribal community.”

The Critical Project was approved four years before the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was authorized in 2000. It was the first trial run on how to execute Everglades planning on a grand scale.

“Unfortunately, the tribe was the guinea pig,” Cunniff said. “There were a lot of lessons learned on how to do this properly and plan restoration on a scale like this. That legacy ends with deauthorization.”

Deauthorization of Army Corps’ projects is a rare occurrence. This is the first completely deauthorized project in Florida, Myers said.

An additional benefit of the deauthorization is the tribe is not responsible for any claims a construction company may have for costs, which could have added up to millions. The tribe’s liability ended with deauthorization.

Messages left for the Army Corps seeking comment were not returned as of press time.

The future of the infrastructure remains to be determined. Whatever decision is made will be the tribe’s to make thanks to the deauthorization.

“This was a great way to start 2021,” Myers said.

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