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A quest to get an amendment guaranteeing a right to clean water pushed back

 Blue-green algae blooms as seen in Lake Okeechobee
Ralph Arwood
/
Calusa Waterkeeper
Blue-green algae blooms as seen in Lake Okeechobee in May 2021.

The Florida Rights of Nature Network has gotten only a fraction of the roughly 900,000 signatures needed to get an constitutional amendment on the 2024 ballot. So it is regrouping and moving its goal to 2026.

Florida's waterways have been in the news recently - and not in a good way. Massive fish kills plaguing Tampa Bay. Manatees starving in the Indian River Lagoon as seagrasses wither. And blue-green algae chasing away tourists and anglers alike.

One nonprofit group thinks it has one solution. It is proposing an amendment to the state constitution that would compel state environmental officials take action to clean up Florida's waters.

Joseph Bonasia of Fort Myers is chairman of the group proposing the Right to Clean and Healthy Waters amendment.

"Clean and healthy waters are absolutely vital to our way of life, our health, local economies, our property values, the wildlife we love," he said. "And so we need to protect our best interests for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren."

They had hoped to get the initiative on next year's ballot. But Bonasia says they have collected only 115,000 of the roughly 900,000 signatures needed. So they plan to regroup after New Year's and push to get it on the 2026 ballot.

"People ask, 'Well, don't we have enough laws on the books already?' And very evidently we don't, otherwise our waters would be in better conditions than they are," he said. "So this gives us a legal tool that we don't have to use when other means fail us."

Dead fish in the water
Eric Higgs
/
Courtesy
Mass fish kills show carcasses piling up on the shores of Big Bayou Bay in St. Petersburg in 2021.

Here's part of our conversation about the proposed amendment:

Tell me the purpose of this petition. What would this do? And how would it make legal protections for waterways be any different than they are right now?

This is an amendment to the state constitution. That's important because it's way up here. It's a fundamental right. It can't get any higher than that. And it's the right to clean and healthy waters. And it enables us to hold our state executive branch, specifically the agencies, accountable when they fail to protect our waters. Waters are not in good shape. We've got 1,000 springs, 800 of them are impaired, and we've lost tens of thousand of acres of seagrasses to red tides and blue-green algae blooms.

I think the majority of Floridians know that people ask, "Well, don't we have enough laws on the books already?" And very evidently we don't, otherwise our waters would be in better conditions than they are. So this gives us a legal tool that we don't have to use when other means fail us.

This reminds me of the "rights of nature" movement from a couple of years ago, and that really didn't get much traction. It was giving legal rights for nature to "Sue itself, giving a legal basis for that." Is that kind of in the same ilk here; it gives a legal status to waterways that are impaired?

Joseph Bonasia
Zoom screen capture
Joseph Bonasia

No, this one does not. What you bring up there is a global rights of nature movement. But I think what you're referring to was back in 2020, in Orange County; 89% of voters passed a rights of nature, right to clean water charter amendment. ... [The] state Legislature stepped in, they took that away by preempting the authority of local governments to pass such laws. It was that preemption that compelled us to take this step to go over the head of the Legislature and amend our state constitution. So we have the means to protect our waters. This amendment is strictly a human right to clean and healthy waters. There is nothing about it that gives rights to nature. The reason for that is because, by law, if you're going to amend our state constitution, it must be very narrowly focused on a single subject. Our Supreme Court would regard giving rights to nature and giving citizens rights to clean water as two separate things, and they would not allow the amendment to go forward.

So how does this make the laws any stiffer than it already is?

Here's an example. Very recently, we had that Ginnie Springs lawsuit, where a bottling company wants a permit to take a million gallons of water per day out of the ... aquifer and springs. Well, that was contested by an environmental group who said that harming the aquifer with that much consumption would not be in the public interest. Nineteen thousand Floridians went on record and said we don't want this. You would think that represents the public interest that we know what the heck is in our best interest? Well, due to basically what comes down to a technicality, the administrative court ruled that the water district should issue the permit.

And that won't happen with our amendment. This would supersede sucking all that water out of the aquifer on the ecosystem.

"We show them the scientific information, the court compels the state to do what it has to do to clean up the lake, not just to clean up the water after it's polluted ... but stop the pollution at the source. This is its job. How do we get the state agencies to do their job. This is the tool to use."
Joseph Bonasia

Likewise, let's talk about Lake Okeechobee. I live down here in Southwest Florida; we get affected by water releases. There are now 32 water basins around Lake Okeechobee that aren't meeting water quality standards. They release water down here and harm our coast, the Caloosahatchee River and our canals, our estuaries. We can take the state to court. We show them the scientific information, the court compels the state to do what it has to do to clean up the lake, not just to clean up the water after it's polluted ... but stop the pollution at the source. This is its job. How do we get the state agencies to do their job. This is the tool to use.

So it compels the state agencies to take action?

This only allows us to go after the state executive branch. We cannot go after a corporation. We can't go after a local government. But the thing is almost everything has to go through the state agencies. It is the state agencies' job to make sure that the polluters don't pollute. This is not about people walking away with some monetary reward. It's all about remedy. If we win, the waters have to be cleaned up.

So you need 900,000 signatures on petitions to get this on the ballot. How is that going?

We launched back on Earth Day in 2020, to about 18 months ago. We have collected 115,000. But very frankly, we're not dismayed. We've been talking to professionals, that our effort was purely on a volunteer shoestring budget. They thought that collecting that many petitions to such grassroots efforts was rather extraordinary. So with the help of professionals, we're pretty confident and we feel good about our prospects for 2026.

This had originally been targeted for 2024. Is that correct?

Correct. It is a Herculean task. Back before 2011, such initiatives had four or five years to collect the required amount of petitions. In 2011, the Legislature cut that down to two years, nor do they accept electronic signatures that would make things very easy.

The Florida Legislature has been notorious in undermining the will of the voters in the past. I'm thinking of specifically constitutional amendments to compel a collection of taxes to preserve land in the state, and they have been very motivated in the past to do whatever they can to go against the will of the voters. How are you supposed to fight that with this one?

"...this is a fundamental right. This is also self-executing, it does not need the Legislature to implement any further legislation to get it going. Once voters pass it, it's law and it is effective."
Joseph Bonasia

Very smart people who wrote the language of this amendment anticipated that the Legislature would attempt to do something like that. A couple of things make this different. No. 1, this is a fundamental right. This is also self-executing, it does not need the Legislature to implement any further legislation to get it going. Once voters pass it, it's law and it is effective. We are very confident that once it's on the ballot, Floridians are going to pass it because there's a history of Floridians supporting environmental initiatives.

Give me your one-minute elevator speech as to why this is needed.

Clean and healthy waters are absolutely vital to our way of life down here in Florida, our health, local economies, our property values, the wildlife we love. We need a tool to defend ourselves against those special interests -and I think a lot of people know who they are - that have undue influence over environmental policy. And so we need to protect our best interests for ourselves, for our children, for our grandchildren.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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