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Guest Column
In Florida, we are still pushing a clean water amendment | Column
It will have to wait until 2026, the author writes, but he is confident it will make the ballot.
 
Divers and swimmers enjoy Ginnie Springs in High Springs in August 2016. In October, a judge ruled that a water-bottling company gets to suck nearly a million gallons of water per day from the Ginnie Springs aquifer. The ruling rejected the argument made by the Florida Springs Council that this level of consumption was environmentally harmful and thus not in the public interest.
Divers and swimmers enjoy Ginnie Springs in High Springs in August 2016. In October, a judge ruled that a water-bottling company gets to suck nearly a million gallons of water per day from the Ginnie Springs aquifer. The ruling rejected the argument made by the Florida Springs Council that this level of consumption was environmentally harmful and thus not in the public interest. [ GAINESVILLE SUN FILE PHOTO | TNS ]
Published Dec. 9, 2023

It shouldn’t be so hard for Floridians to protect our waters. We shouldn’t have to fight against laws and a Legislature that too often favor special interests over the public good.

In October, a judge ruled that a water-bottling company gets to suck nearly a million gallons of water per day from the Ginnie Springs aquifer. The ruling rejected the argument made by the Florida Springs Council that this level of consumption was environmentally harmful and thus not in the public interest.

Joseph Bonasia
Joseph Bonasia [ Provided ]

Furthermore, 19,000 Floridians had previously registered public comments about this issue, the vast majority voicing opposition. The Florida Springs Council argued that these many comments represented the public interest. The court rejected this argument, too.

This decision likely left many Floridians searching for common sense, feeling angry at or defeated by the system, and wondering just what it takes to protect our waters.

Similarly, this year our Legislature passed a bill that paved the way for the use of toxic, radioactive phosphogypsum (a byproduct of phosphate mining) in road construction. Disregarding public concerns and the pleas of environmental organizations who noted that the Environmental Protection Agency has established that this practice will endanger road crews and harm surface water and groundwater, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation into law. Florida’s mining industry was happy. Floridians were not.

The same session produced the notorious “Sprawl Law,” a boon to reckless development and a grave threat to our wetlands. (Important note: 41% of our Legislature is connected to the real estate industry.)

If Floridians had a constitutional “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters,” we could prevent the environmental damage these cases represent, such as 16 young Montanans did this past summer in winning an important climate victory. Montanans, like Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers, have basic environmental rights enshrined in their constitutions. We do not.

Unfortunately, citizens’ efforts to collect 891,523 verified petitions and qualify this amendment for the 2024 ballot have fallen short. To date, we’ve collected approximately 110,000 petitions, with thousands still to submit to supervisor of elections’ offices by Dec. 29. Floridians will not have the most basic environmental rights at the constitutional level this year.

The good news is that we are not dismayed by these numbers. In fact, we are excited about our prospects for 2026.

We’ve attracted the attention and help of campaign professionals who think it is extraordinary we collected the number of petitions we did solely through a grassroots effort and shoestring budget. No other grassroots operation this election cycle produced numbers close to ours. The two high-profile efforts that were far more successful, the marijuana and abortion amendments, had tens of millions of dollars of backing.

In short, our results are an impressive testimony to the passion and determination of our volunteers and the support of more than 200 organizations, businesses and local governments that understand that our amendment can bring the systemic change needed to protect Florida’s precious waters.

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Citizen-driven efforts like ours once had a reasonable four years to collect the required number of petitions. In 2011, however, our Legislature reduced that time frame to two years, and consequently, the petitions we collected will not carry over to the 2026 cycle.

This doesn’t mean we start again from scratch. We will begin in a far stronger position than when we launched on Earth Day 2022. We have a statewide infrastructure of seasoned volunteers, public records of the 110,000 Floridians who signed the current petition whom we will quickly ask to sign again and a valuable degree of public awareness.

That awareness has begun to establish the expectation of this constitutional right in the minds of many Floridians. We need this right, we deserve this right and we will in the near future have this right against the wishes of a state Legislature that is often more intent on protecting special interests than in adequately protecting citizens and Florida waters.

Additionally, complementing our volunteer efforts, our next campaign will employ professionals who will provide campaign expertise and help raise the millions of dollars needed to achieve success in 2026. We wish citizen initiatives in Florida were less expensive. Blame the Legislature’s two-year time frame for that.

Our Legislature has in recent years made the citizen petition process ever more difficult. Nevertheless, we are confident, as are campaign professionals we’ve consulted, that with sufficient funding and continued support of everyday Floridians, we will have a constitutional right to clean and healthy waters in 2026.

Joseph Bonasia is chairperson of the Florida Rights of Nature Network. This opinion piece was distributed by The Invading Sea website (www.theinvadingsea.com), which posts news and commentary on climate change and other environmental issues affecting Florida.