Seminoles air concerns over Water Compact with SFWMD

CLEWISTON — South Florida Water Management District Governing Board members joined for a workshop session with the Seminole Tribe of Florida Council on Wednesday, June 19, at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

The STOF council had invited SFWMD board members to the museum on the grounds of the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation to receive a comprehensive overview of tribal and cultural history. Governing Board members also were provided an in-depth briefing on the elements of the 1987 Water Rights Compact. The compact lays out the tribe’s rights to water under federal law and the extent of SFWMD regulation and cooperation.

First they listened to the five-member Seminole Tribe of Florida Council’s welcoming remarks. Council members are Marcellus W. Osceola Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida; Vice Chairman Mitchell Cypress; Tribal Council Big Cypress Representative David Cypress, Tribal Council Brighton Representative Larry Howard and Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola. The Board of Directors Big Cypress Representative Joe Frank and Board of Directors Brighton Representative Helene Buster also were present. SFWMD leaders then were introduced, including Governing Board Chairman Chauncey Goss and Executive Director Drew Bartlett.

The tribal council showed an orientation film and conducted a tour of the museum’s gallery for the visitors, which was to include an excursion on the boardwalk to the Seminole village, a cultural discussion in the village with tribal members and then lunch. Time was also allotted for a museum library and vault viewing.

The Seminole Tribe Water Rights Compact & Criteria Manual’s provisions and administrative procedures, along with a historical perspective provided by museum personnel, were presented by Jennifer Brown, senior attorney in the SFWMD’s Office of Counsel, through a 28-panel Power Point presentation.

For the State of Florida and the SFWMD, what the compact accomplishes is to formalize the process for SFWMD input into the tribe’s management of water in a manner that respects the tribe’s sovereignty, and it sets forth the mechanism for the district to give input into the management and development of Seminole Tribal lands in a manner consistent with Florida water and environmental laws.

For the tribe, the compact achieves the tribal goals of preserving and legally acknowledging its sovereignty; securing recognition of federal water rights; allowing for development of reservation lands; and providing for protection from adjacent adverse impacts. It provides for an Annual Work Plan to be submitted to SFWMD describing anticipated work to be initiated by the tribe on Reservation and Tribal Trust Lands. It also established the Seminole Water Commission to oversee allocation of water and environmental resources across the tribe’s three Southwest Florida reservations (Big Cypress, Brighton and Immokalee). The tribe, a third party or the state may request a hearing by the governing board. The compact sets forth the steps that must be followed in order for permitting to be issued. The federal courts are the route of final-resort appeals on the annual work plan.

For any third-party applications, the district is obligated to inform the tribe, allow for comments and address them, and the tribe still may object.

The Seminoles’ presentation to the SFWMD listed several of the most major current challenges that the tribe is seeking to be addressed regarding the compact:

• Its goal of self-determination for the tribe has not yet been met, as the STOF has the capabilities to manage and regulate its own resources and interests. Thus, the tribe proposes to update and revise the compact and manual, modernizing substantive portions and delegating and changing regulatory provisions in the manual to lessen SFWMD oversight.

• Preservation and protection of cultural resources are not adequately provided for.

• The water allocation for restoration of wetland systems is problematic.

• The Seminole Tribe of Florida desires greater involvement early on in state and federal planning processes for the new Lake Okeechobee Operating Sytem Manual, the SFWMD’s forward pumps, the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project and dispersed water projects.

(Immokalee Bulletin/Courtesy of Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum)
Chickee huts line the shores of the original Everglades on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation.

Chris can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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