An amendment would make drinking water a legal right

Dead fish line the shore of St. Pete Beach after a red tide on the Gulf of Mexico. COURTESY PHOTO

A new approach to the quest for clean water based on a belief stretching back over a millennium may take place before Florida residents in the 2022 state ballot.

The proposed amendment on the right to drinking water is the first in a series of five proposed amendments on the rights of nature for which a group of environmental activists are collecting signatures and hoping to appear on the ballot.

All Floridians believe they have the right to clean drinking water. But the proposed amendment would make this right legally enforceable. That is, the right to clean drinking water is a legal right, and not just Floridians but water bodies in Florida have this right.

The amendment is necessary because the water regulations and protections we currently have are not working, said Chuck O’Neal, chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, the group that supports and promotes the five amendments. “For us, I think it’s time to get up and do something.”

Under the amendment, any Florida resident or organization can take legal action if they find that the right to clean water is being violated by pollution or actions that will result in pollution. Thus, the resident can go to court on his own behalf or on behalf of the waterways, which also have the legal right “to exist, to circulate, to be free from pollution and to maintain a healthy ecosystem”.

The amendment would not replace existing water regulations, but would improve them by allowing the legal right to intervene when not properly enforced, Mr. O’Neal said.

The wording of the amendment was drafted with assistance from the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, an organization that partners with communities, organizations and governments around the world to create a movement to advance human rights. nature in law.

It is also inspired by a charter amendment that was passed in Orange County in November 2020 with 89% of the vote. The county is so far the largest municipality in the United States to legalize the rights of nature, said Thomas Linzey, senior counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights.

The charter amendment has already sparked a lawsuit filed in April in the 9th Orlando Court, claiming that a 1,923-acre development project would pollute the waters and destroy about 115 acres of wetlands. Mr O’Neal has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wilde Cypress Branch and four other waterways to assert their legal rights against the Meridian Parks Remainder project proposed by developer Beachline South Residential LLC. Beachline and (now the former) Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein have been named as defendants.

The developer could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit, and the state DEP declined to comment.

If the plaintiffs win, it would set a precedent, Mr Linzey said. “It would be an example of how nature rights laws can be passed and enforced against projects that violate the rights of nature in a particular community.”

One of the ideas behind Nature’s Rights is to stop seeing nature, water, and wildlife as a commodity, or like Joseph Bonasia, the Southwest Florida Regional Director of Florida Rights of Nature. Network put it more poetically in a blog post on the network’s website. :

“On a deeper level, however, the struggle is against a cultural paradigm in which we view the natural world simply as a bank of resources to meet human needs and fuel our economy. We act as if we are separate and superior to nature.

But this “new” approach to environmental protection is really not new at all, said Linzey.

“It goes back thousands of years in indigenous communities, where nature is seen as more than property,” he said. It surfaced in Western law in the 1970s via a law journal article written by Christopher Stone, professor of law at the University of Southern California, and by Judge William O. Douglas in his dissenting opinion in Sierra Club v. Morton, a United States Supreme Court case decided in 1972, Mr. Linzey said.

Justice Douglas’ dissent noted that inanimate objects are sometimes parties to litigation, that a ship has “legal personality” and that ordinary society is a “person” for the purposes of adjudicative processes.

His dissent continued: “So it should be so with valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swamps or even the air that feels. the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life… The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unity of life that is part of it. People who have a meaningful relationship with this body of water – whether they are a fisherman, canoeist, zoologist, or lumberjack – need to be able to speak for the values ​​that water represents. river and which are threatened with destruction.

The rights of nature are not just a noble idea, say supporters. It makes good economic sense and down to earth. Tourism is the primary driver of Florida’s economy, and within this category, ecotourism is a strong niche.

“Tourists don’t come to see the blooms of blue-green algae, red tides, or dead marine life lining our shores. They also do not risk their health by breathing air contaminated by these algae blooms, ”says the website of the Nature Rights Network.

If you doubt it, conjure up the sight of the algae blooms that choked Florida waters in 2018 and appeared in international news, decimating the tourism industry and costing many jobs.

Supporters of the amendment on the right to drinking water must obtain 900,000 signatures by November 30 in order to obtain the measure on the 2022 ballot. In fact, they have until February, but the signatures need to be checked and Mr. O’Neal wants to have enough time to do so.

Mr. Bonasia is more than an optimist. It will happen. I am fully confident, ”he said. Watch how the Orange County Charter Amendment passed in November with 89% of the vote, he said. “Regardless of their political background and economic status, Democrats and Republicans tend to unite to support environmental initiatives. “

In addition, people are frustrated with inadequate water quality regulations and enforcement. “It’s almost palpable,” he said.

The other four equally ambitious amendments proposed by the Florida Rights of Nature Network would ban hunting and protect the habitat of 10 iconic species, including the Florida black bear and the Florida panther; prohibit dredging and backfilling of Florida wetlands; ban captive wildlife hunting facilities; and prohibit the construction of toll roads in conservation or rural areas. Each amendment would require 900,000 signatures to be entered on the ballot. ??

In the KNOW

Proposed changes to the rights of nature

Title: Right to drinking water in Florida Summary of the ballot: Prohibits pollution of Florida waters by recognizing a right to potable water for all Floridians and Florida waters, including Everglades, Florida Springs, Indian River Lagoon, St. Johns River, Caloosahatchee River , Biscayne Bay, Tampa Bay, Pensacola Bay and all other state waters; provides for local legislation to protect drinking water, and provides for enforcement and severability.

Title: Protecting Florida’s Iconic Species Summary of the ballot: Improves protection for Florida Black Bear, Florida Panther, Manatee, Master Deer, Florida Jay, Bald Eagle, Red Cocked Woodpecker, Bottlenose Dolphin, Right Whale and iconic Florida sea turtles by prohibiting the recreational and commercial hunting of these species, providing a right of action for the private and citizens of Florida to preserve Florida’s iconic species and their habitat, protect the state’s biodiversity, and to conserve the symbolic, natural and cultural heritage of the State.

Title: Florida Wetland Protection Amendment Summary of the ballot: Improves the protection of Florida wetlands, both natural and man-made, by prohibiting drainage, dredging, infilling or other degradation of Florida wetlands, thereby preventing the adverse effects such actions have on local ecosystems. Florida’s wetlands, native wildlife and environmental health.

Title: Ban on hunting wildlife in captivity Summary of the ballot: Prohibits the hunting of captive wildlife in the state of Florida to prevent cruelty to animals, preserve and protect Florida’s native lands, limit disease transmission, protect the public health of Florida citizens, and preserve and protect wild species.

Title: Florida toll road expansion ban Summary of the ballot: Prohibits the construction or expansion of toll roads on conservation lands and rural lands, as they destroy natural systems, divide wildlife corridors and place an increased burden on working families with excessive expenses, decreasing the quality of life of all Floridians.

To see the full text of each amendment, visit

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