By Joseph Bonasia, the Florida Rights of Nature Network
The whole point of rights is that they are too important to come and go with changing political circumstances. Some rights, such as those of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” or free speech, a free press, or freedom of religion are so fundamental as to be “unalienable.”
In McDonald v. City of Chicago (2010), the Supreme Court defined a fundamental right as one “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” or one which is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty.”
What is more fundamental than clean water?
Maybe it’s different on another planet, but on Earth, water is life — for Republican and Democrat, Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor.
Amniotic fluid is up to 98% water. Human breast milk is 87% water. Human brains and hearts, of both conservatives and liberals, are 80 to 85% water.
Here in Florida, the health of our local and state economies depends upon clean water, too. In Southwest Florida where I live, red tide in 2018-2019 had direct impacts of more than $184 million and $45 million in total federal, state, and local tax impacts.
And yet, our waters are in crisis. Florida ranked first in a recent report for the highest total acres of lakes too polluted for swimming or healthy aquatic life.
About 80% of our 1,000 springs are impaired. Nearly 1 million acres of estuaries and 9,000 miles of rivers and streams are contaminated with fecal bacteria. Blue green algae blooms are commonplace and are linked to neurodegenerative diseases. Manatees are dying in historic numbers.
It’s “America, the Beautiful” from sea to shining sea that is deeply rooted in our traditions and which is “fundamental to our scheme of ordered liberty,” not “America, the Polluted.”
Article One, Section One of the Florida Constitution states, “All political power is inherent in the people,” but the impaired conditions of our waterways strongly suggest otherwise. We consistently and overwhelmingly approve environmental protection laws such as Orange County’s “Right to Clean Water” County Charter Amendment, passed by 89% of voters.
Why then are Florida’s waters in crisis? Because the state isn’t doing its job of protecting them. Degradation of our waters doesn’t happen unless the state allows it. Why would it do that?
In large part, because special interests have undue influence over our legislative and executive branches of government and thus over our environmental regulatory system. Florida’s sugar industry spent more than $11 million on Florida campaigns in the 2020 cycle. Often, special interests write the environmental laws our legislators sponsor.
Consider why, in 2020, the Legislature preempted the right of local governments, such as Orange County, to grant citizens “any specific rights relating to the natural environment.” Why would they do that if not to protect polluting special interests?
Consider citizen initiatives, such as 2014’s Amendment One, the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Voters overwhelmingly approved it only to have state legislators thwart its intent.
In Florida, special interests and political ideologies come first and the Legislature wants to keep it that way. Over the past few years, it has made citizen initiatives to amend our state constitution much more difficult. In 2021, they attempted to limit donations to initiatives to no more than $3,000. Tellingly, they did not impose the same limit on donations to their political committees.
These are the sorts of encroachments upon our rights that our Founding Fathers feared, which is why the Constitution was not ratified until it was amended with the Bill of Rights.
In Florida, the state Constitution is our document, and We, the People, get to amend it. And we need to amend it now with a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” because clean waters are foundational to our well-being and quality of life.
This fundamental right would logically take precedence over the rights of polluters to harm our waters and the state would be bound to act accordingly when, for example, it considers permits that would allow degradation of our waters. This indefeasible right could not be altered or undermined by any branch of government, and it would enable citizens to hold the state accountable in court when it fails to protect our waters.
To qualify a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” amendment for the 2024 ballot, we need to gather close to 900,000 petitions. Don’t rely on others to make this happen. Go to floridarighttocleanwater.org to print, sign, and mail the petition. Then get five more registered Florida voters to do the same.
“All political power is inherent in the people.” Let’s prove it, for ourselves and future generations.
Joseph Bonasia is Chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network.
“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.