You wouldn’t trust your life to a surgeon half of whose patients don’t survive surgery. You wouldn’t place faith in a mechanic who only half the time manages to fix your car. Nor would you be confident that a coach whose teams hadn’t won more than half their games in many years will suddenly deliver a winning season.
Likewise, Floridians would be foolish to believe that our state’s environmental regulatory system, which for decades has failed us and Florida waters, will finally provide the level of protection we so direly need.
Our waters are in crisis. Nearly a million acres of estuaries and 9,000 miles of rivers and streams are contaminated with fecal bacteria. Of our nearly 1,000 springs, 80% are impaired. Manatees died in historic numbers last year because polluted water has killed the seagrass upon which they primarily feed.
In the book, “A Toxic Inconvenience,” Nicholas Penniman reports “south Florida is an example of how mismanagement of natural resources has turned one of the building blocks of life [cyanobacteria] into a potential monster.” Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) is being linked to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS.
He reports that the duration and intensity of red tides have increased dramatically. From 1878 to 1994 there were 64 months of red tide in Florida. From 1994 to 2018 there were 184 months. SW Floridians vividly remember 2018 when a protracted and virulent red tide caused tens of thousands of tons of dead sea life to line our beaches and cost our local tourist economy $184 million.
He reports that during the past 50 years, the state has issued 23,000 permits (10% of the nation’s total) to industry and agriculture to pollute our waters, and that as of 2018, “of the 4,393 waterbodies reviewed and assessed in the State of Florida, 2,440 [over half] have been declared impaired.”
On what grounds can Floridians believe the state is finally going to provide adequate protection of our waters?
In 2020, 89% of Orange County voters, tired of regulatory failure, passed their historic Right to Clean Water / Rights of Nature amendment to their county charter. The state legislature responded by preempting the authority of local governments not just from granting rights to any aspect of nature, but also from granting citizens any rights relating to the natural world. This would include a right to clean water.
Our health, our economy, our property values, and the extraordinary wildlife that we cherish all depend upon clean and healthy waters, and yet, the state is obviously less interested in protecting us and our waters than in appeasing special interests that have undue influence in Tallahassee.
Voting the “right people” into office, a political solution, although a good thing, isn’t a permanent solution because the right people can easily be voted out. One administration can undo the environmental good of its predecessor as we have seen happen in Florida
How then do we compel the state to fulfill its environmental responsibilities?
The permanent and best solution is to amend our constitution with a fundamental “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” for all Floridians. Such an effort was launched this past Earth Day.
Vital to our well-being, clean and healthy waters merit the protection only a fundamental right can provide. This fundamental right logically takes precedence over the rights of polluters, and the state is bound to act accordingly when, for example, it considers permits that would allow harm to our waters and aquatic ecosystems.
Furthermore, this right is indefeasible. It cannot be annulled or altered by any branch of government, as has happened to other laws created through citizen initiatives.
Finally, this law enables citizens to hold the state accountable in court for when through action or inaction it fails to protect our waters in direct violation of this fundamental right.
If the state is failing to enforce good environmental laws, the court could order enforcement. If the problem is the voluntary nature of best management practices on agricultural lands, the court could order they be mandatory. If the problem is scientifically unsound means of measuring the success of basin management action plans, the court could order the use of more accurate means of measurement.
The buck stops with the state, and the state isn’t doing its job. With a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters,” we can change that.
Qualifying this amendment for the 2024 ballot will be a difficult, challenging task for amendment sponsors. We will need to collect 891,000 signed petitions by Nov. 30, 2023.
But supporting this effort is not difficult for individual citizens. It takes two minutes to sign a petition in person and 10 minutes to go online, download the petition, sign it, and mail it.
Given the size of the challenge, perhaps some people feel this amendment effort is a waste of their time, and the more prudent path for Floridians is to place their trust in a regulatory system and legislative process that has failed us for 50 years.
Readers who think otherwise can download the petition at floridarighttocleanwater.org.
— Joseph Bonasia is the Chair and SWFL Regional Director for the Rights of Nature Network.