Concerned about the estuaries, wetlands, lakes and rivers that continue to suffer from pollution and depletion in Florida, a group of citizens are attempting to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024 that would guarantee the people the right to clean water in the Sunshine State.
“We want to make it a fundamental right in our state,” said Tiffany Grantham, the Southeast Florida Regional Director of the Right to Clean Water campaign. “A fundamental right above polluters' rights.”
What You Need To Know
- The “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” proposed constitutional amendment needs to get 891,589 valid signatures by Feb 1, 2024, to qualify for that November’s ballot
- Florida ranks first in the U.S. for total acres of lakes classified by states as impaired for swimming and aquatic life, and second in the country for total lake acres impaired for any use, according to a report issued by the Environmental Integrity Project earlier this year
- A coalition of conservation groups recently released a critical progress report on how many recommendations that Gov. DeSantis Blue-Green Algae Task Force proposed in 2019 have been implemented
- Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say they strongly opposes the group's conclusions
Grantham, who also serves as the conservation chair for the Broward County Sierra Club, says she became emboldened to fight for change when she visited Pahokie and Belle Glade south of Lake Okeechobee and saw what was happening to the air and water due to sugar cane burning.
“Most of the state’s water is impaired,” she said. “That means it’s got fecal bacteria or some kind of algae, or garbage.”
In 2020, Orange County voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment aimed at protecting “the rights of nature” that granted lakes, wetlands and streams the right to exist, to flow, to be protected against pollution and maintain a healthy ecosystem. It also recognized citizens' ability to file enforcement actions on their behalf.
However, a Florida judge dismissed the proposal in July, finding that state law prevents local governments from recognizing or granting certain rights to the natural environment, or granting such rights of the natural environment to a person or political subdivision.
Chuck O’Neal, president of the group Speak Up Wekiva, which led the effort to pass the Orange County charter amendment, said that he believes the proposed clean water constitutional amendment’s language is different and thus should pass legal muster.
“It has to do with the hierarchy with law,” he says. “A constitutional amendment is over the Legislature, and the Legislature is over local government.”
The Sunshine State ranks first in the U.S. for total acres of lakes classified by states as impaired for swimming and aquatic life, and second in the country for total lake acres impaired for any use, according to a report issued by the Environmental Integrity Project earlier this year.
In the fall of 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis created a five-member Blue-Green Algae Task Force, charged with providing science-based recommendations with the goal of expediting improvements and restoration of Florida’s waters that have been adversely affected by blue-green algae blooms.
However last month a coalition of 12 environmental groups released a critical progress report of that task force, claiming that it has implemented only four of the 31 recommendations that they had originally made in 2019.
Matt DePaolis, the environmental policy director with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation (one of the groups that wrote the progress report), says that most of those implemented recommendations dealt with mitigation efforts, which he believes is “skirting” the issue of how to stop such algal blooms.
“Until we can get a handle on these nutrients that are going into the system, mitigation after the fact, while it’s definitely helpful to be including new technology and figuring out how to mitigate something that’s already happened, we need to be in the business of preventing these, not trying to fix them after the fact,” he told Spectrum Bay News 9.
An official from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection strongly disagreed with the evaluation of the governor’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force recommendations.
“Unfortunately, this ‘progress report’ is based on information that has been misinterpreted or misrepresented and, as a result, it reaches an inaccurate conclusion regarding the status of implementation of the task force’s recommendations,” FDEP press secretary Alexandra Kuchta said in a statement sent to Spectrum Bay News 9. “The fact is, Florida has made historic and accelerated strides for our natural resources under Governor Ron DeSantis’ leadership. Most of the task force’s recommendations have been addressed through the passage of the Clean Waterways Act, which was based on the task force’s recommendations, and the associated rulemaking authority; however, many others do not need rulemaking authority to be accomplished such as expansion of the state’s water quality monitoring network. “
Kuchta went on to say that “there is more work to be done,” and that “Florida’s natural resource challenges are real and they are complex.”
"Thanks to Governor DeSantis’ leadership, the state is in the best position it has ever been to take strategic action to improve our water quality, and Florida is continuing to do just that," she added.
Meanwhile, Grantham said she will continue to take any opportunity to acquire signatures to attempt to get the proposed constitutional amendment up before the Florida Supreme Court. She said that while her group may not get the nearly 1 million qualified signatures required to get on the ballot — though she remains optimistic that they will — making the effort is going to give “people hope.”