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Eastern Cherokee Band Recognized by EPA for Harnessing Rainwater

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians harvested enough rainwater to nourish 75,000 plants, earning the U.S. EPA Region 4 2015 Rain Catcher Award.

Creative use of storm water and runoff has earned the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians kudos from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the form of a regional 2015 Rain Catcher Award in the Tribal Category for their Native Plant Facility project in western North Carolina.

The award, bestowed for “excellence in the implementation of stormwater green infrastructure practices,” was given to the tribe at a ceremony during the agency’s Region 4 International Erosion Control Association Municipal Wet Weather Stormwater Conference in Atlanta in June.

The project—running and maintaining a Native Plant Nursery Facility designed to provide native plants for tribal projects associated with aquatic restoration, riverbank vegetation and wildlife habitat enhancement—not only garnered the band an award but also could serve as models for other tribes, EPA officials said.

“The project employed two 6,000-gallon cisterns to capture and reuse approximately 1,750 gallons of rainwater per inch of rainfall,” the EPA said in a statement announcing the award on June 17. “The facility location received 52 inches of precipitation in the past year, resulting in approximately 91,000 gallons of rainwater captured and ultimately applied to the plants. With this rain harvesting capability, the Cherokee have reduced surface water consumption from the on-site stream by more than 36 percent.”

Eastern Band of Cherokee Principal Chief Michell Hicks told ICTMN that reusing rainwater is an important part of leaving a softer ecological footprint and thus a priority for the tribe.

“One of the things we really focus on, without question, is the protection of our environment,” he said. “We ask, ‘How can we best utilize our current resources?’ ”

The Cherokee Native Plant Facility takes a life-cycle approach to solving an environmental problem using green infrastructure, the very thing the Raincatcher Award was designed to recognize, EPA spokesperson Davina Marraccini told ICTMN.

“The tribe wanted to restore historical floodplains for propagation of culturally significant plants and reestablishing historical fisheries communities,” Marraccini said. “The cost of plant material for reforestation of floodplains was significant. So, through collaboration and partnerships, they resolved that it would be economically opportune to breed their own plant stock.”

Sovereignty also factors in, in the form of the reintroduction of traditional plants.

“We definitely have started a number of programs that focus on indigenous foods, including ramps, which are similar to wild onions,” said Hicks. “We have also reestablished beans, corn and other vital eco-foods, and that has been very beneficial.”

Marraccini said a major concern for many organizations in 2015 is the use of water and that the EPA recognized this project because of its strength in meeting advertised criteria and employing innovative thinking to solve an environmental challenge.

“A significant cost in running any nursery is water use,” Marraccini said. “The cisterns installed at the native plant facility have not only reduced the amount of purchased water, which cuts costs, but also captures rainfall at its peak force, which reduces runoff quantity and velocity. The retention and reuse of this stormwater further removes pollutants, since plants filter the water they use.”

The nursery facility has provided about 75,000 plants for projects, 120,000 container plants of 32 species and a rain-harvesting capability that has reduced surface water consumption from the on-site stream by more than a third, Marraccini noted that the practices of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Plant Nursery are a great example for other tribes and businesses.

“Thinking about the environment in a business context should include thinking about everything in the business process, from materials to disposal,” she said. “That is applicable for any business or any tribe. It is the sensible method to find ways to save costs and think green. The specifics for a particular business in a particular place will be different. But the process starts with engaging partners who can help you with thinking through the challenges and coming up with solutions. That’s what the Cherokee did in this case.”

Facing challenges such as water availability requires cooperation, she emphasized.

“We’re thrilled to have the Tribe as a partner in restoring our aquatic environment here in the Southeast,” Marraccini said. “The challenges in water management are substantial. The tribe’s willingness to do what they can and to find innovative ways to address the issues facing them is all we can ask of any partner.”