On Election Day, a breathtaking 89% of Orange County voters approved the Right to Clean Water Charter Amendment. Orange County is now the largest jurisdiction in the nation to pass this kind of legislation.
Historic in its scope and meaning, this vote ushers in the systemic change Florida needs, and it makes Florida the epicenter of the Rights of Nature Movement in the United States.
This is an indisputable, bi-partisan mandate from the citizens of Orange County. Approval of the amendment — also known as the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights – shows that the rights to clean water and healthy ecosystems are not to be subordinated to the interests of polluters.
It shows that business should not be conducted at the expense of the environment and the public welfare, and that the so-called choice between a healthy environment and a healthy economy is a false one.
In August, citizens also voted Nicole Wilson onto the Orange County Commission. She ran almost exclusively on the Right to Clean Water/Rights of Nature issue. Attack ads claimed the law would “kill jobs, affordable housing, and our recovering economy.” Voters rejected such claims and with 57% of the vote, Wilson handily defeated the better funded incumbent.
Floridians across the political spectrum agree on this: clean water and healthy ecosystems are vital to our personal welfare and the tourist economy.
This mandate also demonstrates that an overwhelming majority of Orange County citizens have lost faith in a state government and a regulatory system that have failed to protect the basic rights of people as well as the natural world. In a county in which the breakdown of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents is 36.6%, 34.2% and 24.3%, respectively, the amendment results may reflect the sentiments of residents throughout the state.
After decades of chronic pollution — of repeated blue-green algae blooms and red tides; of hundreds of thousands of tons of dead marine life repeatedly lining our beaches; of industry-orchestrated, in-your-face state preemptions of common-sense community environmental efforts; of the state Legislature thwarting the people’s intent by raiding the 2014 Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which voters earmarked for conservation efforts—after all these environmental issues and more, this mandate says Floridians are ready for a new approach.
There are things so basic to an American quality of life that they must be beyond the influence of corporate agents and changing political policies. Clean water and healthy ecosystems are such things.
Granting legally recognized rights to nature is the new vanguard of environmental efforts.
Now, initiatives like the Orange County amendment will be launched elsewhere in the state. Citizens who live within the Caloosahatchee River Watershed are no less deserving, and the watershed is no less deserving, of the same rights Orange County citizens have won for themselves and their waterways.
Citizens in the Pensacola Bay Watershed and the St. Lucie River Watershed will demand the same for themselves, and South Floridians desperately trying to save Biscayne Bay will follow suit.
Yes, the Legislature, in its much-ballyhooed 2020 Clean Waterways Act, preempted local jurisdictions from granting rights to nature, but the constitutionality of that preemption is already being challenged in court. Furthermore, the preemption does not apply to new Right to Clean Water/ Rights of Nature laws being pursued elsewhere in the state.
Two years after photos of our algae-choked waterways and dead marine life made international news, Florida can now boast it is at the forefront of a new environmentalism that at long last provides citizens with the rights they need and nature with the highest protection under law.
Joseph Bonasia is the Southwest Florida Regional Director of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, Inc.
Originally published in “The Invading Sea,” 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.
Photo by permission of John Moran