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Backers of Right to Clean Water amendment seeking to qualify for Florida’s 2024 ballot

Supporters of the proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing Floridians the 'fundamental right to clean and healthy water' needs about 800,000 more signatures to qualify for the ballot.

A proposed constitutional amendment in Florida would give residents in the state a ‘fundamental right to clean and healthy waters.’ Joseph Bonasia is chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network and is leading the petition campaign for Florida Right to Clean Water, which is sponsoring the amendment. He recently spoke to WUWF’s Sandra Averhart.

Sandra Averhart: Well, let's start at the beginning. Give us some background, if you would, as to how this ballot initiative came about.

Joseph Bonasia: So, back in 2020, folks in Orange County passed an Orange County charter amendment giving rights to their waters and also giving themselves a right to clean waters. And, our state legislature very quickly stepped in and they took those rights away. They preempted the authority of local governments to pass laws giving rights to nature, and also to pass any laws giving citizens any rights to any aspect of the natural world. So it was at that point where we felt, if they're not going to allow local governments to work on our water quality issues, then we have to go above, the state legislature to amend our state constitution to give us the legal tools to provide adequate protection for our waters.

Averhart: Give us the wording of the amendment, explain what the amendment is and what will it do if it's approved.

Bonasia: This amendment creates a fundamental right to clean and healthy waters for all Floridians. Key word there is ‘fundamental.’ There are different levels of rights. Fundamental rights are the highest ones there are, like freedom of, speech, freedom of religion, right to bear arms, et cetera. And fundamental rights would take precedence over lower rights, such as the permitted rights that our state gives to polluters, others who would degrade our environment. The second part of the ballot summary says that this enables us to hold our state executive branch accountable when it permits pollution, degradation of our waters and aquatic ecosystems.

Averhart: How would, holding the state accountable look as an example?

Bonasia: OK, here's a very specific example. Lake Okeechobee. I'm down south. I'm giving you an example near me. Everybody knows Lake Okeechobee is very polluted. They release water down the Caloosahatchee River or the St. Lucie River, and they create algae blooms and exacerbate red tides south of the lake. Well, that enables us to sue the Department of Environmental Protection. We take them to court. The court looks at a lot of the scientific information. It sees that there are 32 water basins around Lake Okeechobee that aren't meeting water quality standards. Maybe there's not enough enforcement, maybe there's not enough monitoring of the water. Whatever the issues are, the court identifies them, and it could compel the DEP to do what it has to do to start to clean up Lake Okeechobee. And I don't mean just cleaning the water before we release it south. I mean curtailing the pollution going into the water. Governor Ron DeSantis has allocated billions of dollars to cleaning the water before we send it south, but that's after the water is polluted. It does very little to stop pollution at the source. Our amendment can make the DEP do that.

Averhart: So, it would have teeth?

Bonasia: I like that phrase, ‘This law has teeth,’ the teeth that we need, because a lot of times, other things that have been passed don't have the legal teeth. Now, I think perhaps you're talking about other initiatives that once voters approved them comfortably, or even overwhelmingly, the legislature stepped in and sort of pulled the rug out from underneath them. That is almost impossible to happen in this case. This is a fundamental right. It would be like the state legislature trying to take away our freedom of speech. It is also self-executing. It doesn't need any other laws to be passed by the legislature to implement this right. The moment voters approve it, it's law, it's in effect.

Averhart: And the teeth, if I, interpret this right, would be in the courts. You'd be able to go to court.

Bonasia: Exactly. It is unfortunate that it comes to that, and I just want to deal with a common concern of people, oh, this is going to lead to a proliferation of lawsuits. It's not going to happen. We know this because in Pennsylvania and in Montana, where amendments like this have been on the books for decades, we haven't seen that proliferation of lawsuits. It's just a handful per year, and they have done great things.

Averhart: So as I looked at the information about this, the initiative was approved for circulation in April of 2022.

Bonasia: That simply means that the division of elections looked at the way the petition and the amendment was formatted. It has to do that. By law, a judicial review by a supreme court does not happen until we reach 25% of the total number of petitions required. In this case, it would, get triggered when we hit about 223,000 petitions, because we need around 900,000.

Averhart: OK, so I wanted to go there in terms of how the effort has been going to get the signatures that you need. So where do you stand now? And then tell us more about how many you need.

Bonasia: We are around 85,000 to 88,000. Those are what our internal records say that we have collected. That doesn't describe what has been verified by Supervisor of Election Offices. They have 60 days to verify petitions. So, their account will be a little bit less behind ours. But what this means is we still need about 800,000 signed petitions, and we need them by the end of this year.

Averhart: I did see a February 2024 deadline. So, is the end of the year kind of what you want, what you're hoping for?

Bonasia: Well, officially, this election cycle ends on February 1, 2024. But Supervisor of Election Offices have 30 days when it comes to crunch time. They have 30 days to verify petitions. So December 31, that's the bottom line. After that, they don't have to verify any more petitions. We might submit them, and maybe they would look at them, maybe they wouldn't. But for all intents and purposes, it's the end of this year. And yes, it is a, herculean task that we have before us.

Averhart: Yeah, because you need ten times the amount. So what then, is the Florida Right To Clean Water organization doing? What is the game plan for trying to reach that number in just a few months?

Bonasia: Well, our biggest obstacles, one is awareness. A fair amount of people say they have never heard of us. I find that a little bit surprising, but that's what they say. And the other one is that they can download our petition online and sign it and mail it in. But that isn't as productive as having live petition gatherers out on the streets, standing in front of a voter and saying, hey, do you want clean water? Can you take two minutes to sign the petition? So we are still, working hard to get the word out. We have over 600, we call them Right to Clean Water ambassadors who go out there ah, at events to collect petitions. We are still getting support from organizations and influential individuals. We have over 200 organizations and businesses and even some local governments that are supporting our amendment. We live in a time that things can go viral, and there is still time to do this. But admittedly, it's a challenge.

Averhart: Are you getting pushback?

Bonasia: No, we're not really getting pushback if you're talking about industry pushback, because I don't think they see us as a threat at this point, not in terms of our numbers guaranteed if we trigger that Supreme Court review, and if we qualify for the, 2024 ballot, there'll be plenty of pushback.

Averhart: Okay, so that's a question for a later date. And you do have folks on the ground here in Northwest Florida, namely Mary Gutierrez.

Bonasia: Yeah, Mary is our regional coordinator, and she's also, one of our directors on Florida Rights of Nature Network. She's been with us since the initiation of the organization back in 2019.

Averhart: Final thing, given that you have a lot of work to do to get the number of signatures that you need, what would you say to our listeners, our, readers, to get them to come aboard and sign the petition for this amendment?

Bonasia: Very simple. Water is absolutely essential to off the reading and quality of life. I think everybody gets that. Very few people resist signing it. What it comes down to, I would ask your listeners, your viewers, simply to put in a few minutes, sign the petition and mail it in and get five other people to do the same thing. If all our current signers did that, we would now be in the hundreds of thousands. Sign the petition, get five others to sign. That's what we ask.

Averhart: Joe, are you optimistic that you can accomplish this final push, this push for the signatures you need?

Bonasia: I'm realistic, I believe it is still possible, but it's not going to happen, without a lot of work and Floridians putting in a little time to do what they should do, the effort is not going to go away. I think we have been very successful in planting the notion of a fundamental right to clean water in the public's consciousness, and there will know future efforts to do the same thing. This is not happening just in Florida. It's happening in other states as well. People recognize that legislatures are making it increasingly difficult for the people to do what they want to do. And so, voters are going over the heads of the legislatures here and elsewhere.

Averhart: Joe, thank you very much.

Bonasia: Thank you, Sandra.

Copyright 2023 WUWF. To see more, visit WUWF.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.
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