Seminole Tribe, landowner dispute water rights

PORT ST. LUCIE – An earthen plug installed in the L-59 borrow canal in Glades County was a topic of debate at the Feb. 1 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.

Steve Walker, representing the Seminole Tribe of Florida, said the tribe installed an emergency earthen plug in the L-59. In June and October 2019, the tribe notified the district that it took emergency actions by installing earthen plugs in the canal to ensure water supply for tribal lands.

The L-59 borrow canal is located within the Indian Prairie Water Use Basin and a portion of the canal is located within Brighton Reservation, Mr. Walker explained. This is an area of pasture that depends on water delivered by the L-59 canal, he said.

On Oct. 11, 2019 the tribe installed an emergency temporary plug, he said. This is the fourth time the tribe has had to do this. It raises water level in the L-59 canal to allow water moving to the pastures.

“If not for the dire circumstances, the Tribe would not have done it,” he said.

“The Water Rights Compact set up a process for emergency actions. We provided notice on Oct. 21,” he said.

He said the problem has its roots back in the 1960s when the rights of way for canals were acquired. Some of the promises made to the landowners at that time have created problems, he said.

“What typically happens is when it starts raining again we don’t need irrigation water and everyone seems to forget,” he said.

Mr. Walker said cattle ranching has been part of the tribe’s tradition for centuries.

Mark Hunter Pearce, of D. L. Pearce Ranch Inc. and L Cross Ranch, said the Seminole Water Compact was invented after the 1962 agreement.

“That ‘62 agreement supersedes the pact,” he continued. “You can’t cut a man’s water off.”

He said the L-59 runs directly into Paradise Run. The earthen plug installed by the Tribe has deprived his property of water, he said.

“My family has been here for more than 100 years and I have spent my entire life on this land,” he said.

“The Indians just purchased St. Thomas (ranch) in the last year or so. The purpose of this plug was to give them water to the St. Thomas property,” he alleged. “Until the purchase of the St. Thomas property, they didn’t get any water from the L-59.”

“All of the water that goes to the land in question comes from the Mose ditch,” he continued. “You have to ask yourself how did Munroe Thomas irrigate his property? It came from the Mose ditch,” he said.

“Over half of the water in the L-59 canal flows east and it flows east beginning at the southwest corner of St. Thomas property which is adjacent to the southeast corner of the Brighton reservation which is where the plug is today,” he said.

“Our problem is from the litigation that I started, but not with SFWMD. It was with a first cousin who cut my water off. My water is cut off today, cut off since 2016,” he continued.

Mr. Pearce said the Seminole pact only gives the tribe 15% of the water.

“They’ve got 100% of it,” he said.

He said the SFWMD made the situation worse when they lowered the water levels in the ditches in anticipation of Hurricane Dorian, which did not drop the anticipated rainfall on south Florida.

“They’ve not given me one drop of my water back,” he said.

Mr. Walker said the tribe has a consumptive use permit to use water from the L-59 to irrigate the St. Thomas property.

“We disagree with Mr. Pearce,” said Mr. Walker.

The next step in the process is for the water management district to come back with a response.

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