Environmental group wants a ballot amendment to protect Florida's waters for wildlife, sports and consumption. They just need 816,523 more signatures to get it there.
Getting an amendment on the Florida ballot for the November 2024 election is a colossal undertaking. You need to gather 891,523 verified, signed petitions from registered voters who support your cause. At least 8 percent of signers — across 14 Congressional districts — must have voted in the last presidential election. Petitions need to be turned in to supervisors of elections by February 1. And then you need a final green light from the Florida Supreme Court that the ballot language just focuses on a single issue and is not confusing to voters.
For Cheryl Lasse, a Windermere-based “water ambassador” and state-level campaign coordinator with the political action committee Florida Right To Clean Water, it's all worth the hustle and the effort for a ballot measure to protect Florida’s waterways from pollution and aquifers from further depletion.
Sponsored by Florida Right to Clean Water under the guidance of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, the Right To Clean and Healthy Waters amendment (here in Spanish), is meant to enshrine a “right to clean and healthy waters” as a fundamental right alongside other fundamental democratic rights — like the rights to worship, bear arms, assemble, speak freely and petition the government. If passed, the amendment would allow citizens to sue the state government for polluting Florida's waters through its direct actions — or failure to act.
Similar amendments have been passed in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, New York and Pennsylvania.
"The Right To Clean and Healthy Waters is a stopgap, declaring that no more harm will be allowed to our waters," reads the political action committee's website. "We as Floridians will decide whether our waters being clean and healthy are more important or less important to our state government than the profits that polluters earn by polluting and degrading our waters."
The Right To Clean and Healthy Waters amendment, which may be one of three ballot measures voted on during the 2024 election (including those for abortion and recreational marijuana) has backing from well over 200 organizations and supporters. These are as diverse as the Libertarian Party of Seminole County, the Harriett Tubman Freedom Fighters Corp., Treasure Coast Rowing Club, Surf Rider Foundation of Florida, Veterans for Common Sense, Flagler Sportfishing Club, Earth Action and actor Mark Ruffalo.
“This is an ‘all of us’ issue,” Lasse said in a recent Zoom interview. “Clean water is huge.”
These days, Florida’s many waterways are not very clean or very healthy for aquatic life or people. Florida ranks among the top 10 states for polluted lake acreage, according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. Eighty percent of the state’s 1,000 springs contain excessive amounts of nitrogen. The last two years have seen escalating numbers of manatee deaths from starvation as pollution decimated the seagrass they feed on. Locals and tourists have been warned periodically to stay out of Florida’s waters because high levels of disease-causing pathogens, from E. coli to Vibrio vulnificus, the "flesh-eating bacteria," are present. And tons of dead fish, washing up across Florida's shores as a result of red tides, have impacted health, quality of life and local economies.
Lasse said one developer she talked with signed the petition to put the amendment on the ballot because red tide ruined his family getaway to Sanibel. “He said they rented a house and when they got down there, they couldn’t go outside, they couldn’t breathe. They sat inside the rental house for a week. The whole vacation was ruined. Now he wants to do something.”
The Right To Clean and Healthy Waters amendment has its roots in a 2020 Orange County charter amendment. In these hyper-partisan times, it’s challenging to find any issue that a plurality of people can rally behind. School vouchers? Nope. Abortion? Uh, next. Gun safety? Good luck. People couldn't even agree on whether it was Yanny or Laurel or if that dress was blue and black or white and gold. Yet in 2020, a whopping 89 percent of Orange County voters — Biden and Trump voters — passed a county charter amendment, stating that all Orange County citizens had “a right to clean water." And it gave two rivers, the Econlockhatchee and Wekiva, the legal “right to exist, flow, to be protected against pollution, and to maintain a healthy ecosystem.”
This is known as a “rights of nature law,” and these laws are becoming more common in environmental legal circles. Rights of nature laws give natural resources, like rivers and wetlands “personhood” rights to protect themselves, the way that corporations have personhood rights, Lasse explained. “It is Nirvana with respect to environmental laws,” she said.
The county charter amendment was a landslide win. The one tiny, little hiccup of a snafu was that a few months earlier, Gov. Ron DeSantis had signed The Clean Waterways Act, which expressly prohibited people from suing on behalf of natural resources. In 2022, a judge struck down Orange County's amendment on the basis that the state law pre-empted it.
Last year, Titusville voters in Brevard County passed a similar amendment to the amendment Florida Right To Clean Water is attempting to put on the ballot — according rights to citizens rather than the natural resources. Titusville's amendment passed with 83 percent of the vote. It's currently locked up in a lawsuit by city leaders concerned that state law overrules it.
That’s why Florida Right To Clean Water is determined to amend the Florida Constitution — a constitutional amendment will supersede state law. “We've stopped going after rights of nature because we don't want to push something that is preempted,” Lasse said. “And there is not enough time or money to do this county by county or city by city.”
Currently the signature gathering is behind schedule. Lasse said they’ve collected just 75,000 signatures. One explanation for that is the campaign has an all-volunteer crew of petition gatherers. To avoid having to pay to have petitions reviewed by supervisors of elections — at a cost of 11 cents to 55 cents per petition — the campaign has not enlisted paid workers to fan out at college campuses, parades, concerts and sports events, to collect signatures. (That's how Floridians Protecting Freedom, the group sponsoring the abortion amendment, banked 88,000 of the nearly half million petition signatures it's collected since May.)
Working with volunteers "enables people without millions of dollars to be able to do this,” Lasse said. It also means volunteers show up when they can. “That’s why we need everyday people to do very small things."
How you can help:
Ask family and friends to sign it too. Bring a stack of petitions to the first PTO meeting, Bible study, book club, cheer practice, soccer practice or whatever activity your kid is doing this fall. Mail signed petitions to Florida Right To Clean Water, 13300 S. Cleveland Ave, Suite 56, Fort Myers, FL 33907.
Get your favorite local businesses involved. Ask your go-to coffee spot, burger joint, dry cleaner, florist, nail salon, doctors office, etc., to become commercial petition locations where people can find petitions and sign them and drop them off. Tim’s Wine Market and Body Coach Personal Training in Windermere and Splash of Color salon in Winter Garden, all serve as petition drop-off points. To become a commercial petition location, click here. Volunteers swing through every week to pick up signed petitions and ship them to the campaign’s main office.
Do CPR. That stands for Catch. Photo. Release. CPR yourself with a beautiful fish and include your thoughts — written or video — on why clean water is important to you. Send it to email@example.com by Aug. 31.
Join the campaign. Here's where you can sign up to volunteer.