Jun 12, 2023 - News

Group wants to amend the Florida constitution to protect waters

Hundreds of silvery dead fish float atop a canal with boats.

Red tide caused a fish kill in Madeira Beach in 2021. Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

Hits to our state's environment — and citizens' ability to protect it — just keep coming.

What's happening: A grassroots group called Florida Rights of Nature Network (FRONN) is trying to add an amendment to the state constitution that would help protect Florida's waters.

  • The amendment would codify a right to clean water by making it unlawful for a state executive agency "to harm or threaten to harm Florida waters by action or inaction."
  • It specifies that Floridians can sue state agencies to enforce this right.

Why it matters: Florida's waters are in huge trouble.

Background: Laws protecting the environment have gone unenforced or have been neutralized by lawmakers, FRONN chair Joseph Bonasia tells Axios.

  • In Orange County, voters overwhelmingly approved a law that gave rights to waterways in 2020, but the state legislature preempted it in a bill, SB 712.
  • Local comprehensive plans are supposed to keep development in check, but legislators this year passed a bill, SB 540, that will make it financially risky for anyone to sue to keep projects in line with such plans.

The other side: SB 712, the Clean Waterways Act, contained other provisions that protect the environment, Gov. Ron DeSantis' office announced when he signed it into law.

  • SB 540's sponsor, Sen. Nick DiCeglie (R-St. Petersburg), contended it will reduce frivolous lawsuits.

Context: Three states — Pennsylvania, Montana and New York — have environmental rights enshrined in their constitutions, which essentially force them to protect their natural resources.

  • FRONN's proposed amendment aims to have a similar effect.
  • Had it already been in the constitution, it could have prevented pollution in Biscayne Bay and the environmental disaster at Piney Point affecting Tampa Bay, Bonaisa says.

What's next: By Nov. 30, 900,000 petitions must be signed and approved in order to get the proposed amendment onto the 2024 ballot.

  • Electronic signatures are not allowed, so supporters must print out a petition from the website, then sign and mail it in.
  • Bonaisa calls for each person who signs the petition to get five more people to do so.

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