By Richard Baker, Pelican Island Audubon Society
“Every Floridian has a right to clean water.”
These are the first words found in the proposed Florida Right to Clean Water Constitutional Amendment.
Florida’s waters are in great peril. Red tide plagues the west coast and routinely results in staggering deaths of fish and sea turtles. The Indian River Lagoon is seeing the worst manatee mortality in Florida’s history.
Why? Because we’ve polluted its waters for so long that the seagrasses that once supported a vast array of marine life have vanished, and with it, the manatees’ main food staple. Many North Florida freshwater springs run dry or flow with nutrients fueling algal growth.
One might reasonably think that such water problems would motivate our state’s agencies and elected officials to move aggressively with new laws and rules that actually clean up pollution sources. Reasonableness, however, is not the currency of choice in Tallahassee.
A Florida administrative law judge ruled this year that a water-bottling company could not be denied a permit to pull a million gallons a day from a depleted aquifer that is damaging springs near the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee rivers. When environmental organizations challenged as insufficient the state’s Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) – the plan that is supposed to result in the cleaning of our waters – a judge ruled, more or less, that it didn’t matter if the plan would fail to accomplish its goals, only that the state went through the steps of creating the plan.
Last month, our governor and cabinet voted to overturn a judge’s decision that forbade Miami-Dade County from paving over more Everglades wetlands to build additional roads outside the county’s urban-services area. The state is spending billions to restore the Everglades only to allow more development to destroy those same wetlands.
The laws are designed so that when it comes to a battle between industry or agriculture versus the environment, the environment loses almost every time.
Which brings us back to the Florida Right to Clean Water. This amendment reshapes how we protect water. Special-interest groups would have less control over the laws governing our waters, as local governments could provide greater protection than the bare minimum the state provides.
Floridians will be able to vote on the proposed amendment in November 2022 if 891,589 voters sign a petition by early next year requiring that it be on the November ballot.
Some refer to the amendment as the Rights of Nature amendment. It is designed to prevent the state from preempting local governments that enact greater legal protection for our waters.
Residents will have more say about our waters. Citizens will have the right to enforce local laws and general principles articulated under the amendment itself through court action. Power shifts from the state to a shared responsibility between state and local governments.
There was a mantra in the last decade to return to home rule. That was the alleged rationale for Tallahassee killing off state-level growth-management regulations that minimized impacts to our quality of life. Except Tallahassee wasn’t really interested in returning home-rule authority.
Instead, repealing some of the most comprehensive growth-management regulations in the country simply made it easier for developers to destroy the environment, dirty our waters, and overwhelm our infrastructure. The Legislature made sure local governments could always make it easier on developers, but never harder.
The Right to Clean Water Amendment wouldn’t be necessary if the state would enact real reform to protect our waters. This amendment will cause growing pains with the titanic shift in water policy resulting from its passage, but there is nothing easy about the solutions to our water crisis.
If you believe the waters around Florida are healthy and being well managed, then vote “no” on the Right to Clean Water Amendment. However, if you believe that the state has failed in protecting our greatest asset, then you should consider supporting this constitutional amendment by signing the ballot petition at https://fl5.org/right-to-clean-water before Jan. 2.
Richard Baker, Ph.D., is President of the Pelican Island Audubon Society.
“The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.