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For Immediate Release

Contact

Thomas Linzey, Esq.
Senior Attorney, Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights
tal@pa.net

Press Release

First in the U.S.: "Rights of Nature" State Constitutional Amendment Filed in Florida to Protect Waterways

Would amend the Florida Constitution to recognize all waterways as having rights to "exist, flow, be free from pollution…and a healthy ecosystem."
WASHINGTON -

Florida environmental leaders have begun collecting signatures to qualify a state constitutional amendment that would recognize legal rights of waterways in the state.

The statewide amendment, the first “rights of nature” measure in the United States to be proposed and approved for state ballot petitioning, would, if adopted, change the landscape of environmental protection in Florida. It was approved for signature circulation by the Florida Division of Elections on May 20.           

The amendment would recognize the legally enforceable rights of all waterways across Florida to “exist, flow, be free from pollution, and maintain a healthy ecosystem.” The amendment then provides that any Floridian or Florida organization can file a legal action on behalf of those waterways to require their protection, repair, and restoration.

The amendment also recognizes every Floridian’s legal right to clean water, and authorizes Florida counties, cities, and towns to enact additional protections for waterways. It then shields those municipal enactments from preemption by the state legislature.

The state amendment is modeled on the Orange County, Florida, “Right to Clean Water” initiative which passed overwhelmingly in November 2020. The initiative passed with an 89% majority vote, and recognized legal rights of waterways. In April, the first enforcement case under the new law was filed – against a development company proposing to build on, and eliminate, over a hundred acres of wetlands and waterways in the county.              

The amendment is part of a five-environmental amendment proposal aiming for the November 2022 statewide ballot. The other amendments would recognize new legal protections for Florida iconic species, ban toll road construction on conservation land, ban the dredging and filling of Florida wetlands, and ban captive wildlife hunting facilities.

Chuck O’Neal, Chair of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, explained, “It’s time to replace a state government which has been focused on developing as much of Florida as it can, with a system which permanently protects what is important to Floridians and our tourism-based economy. This amendment would achieve several goals – stopping the systematic destruction of Florida’s wetlands while providing permanent protection to what makes Florida special – its waterways and its clean water.” 

Mari Margil, Executive Director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, which provided assistance with the drafting of the measure and assists with “rights of nature” measures worldwide, stated, “For too long, state governments have enabled developers who want to destroy Florida’s waterways. This amendment represents a re-programming of government, to a system which protects, rather than destroys, nature. In establishing the rights of waterways, the amendment is an opportunity to protect and restore nature, following in the footsteps of countries around the world which are changing how they protect threatened ecosystems.”

Joe Bonasia, a member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, explained the need for the amendment, stating, “There were 64 months of red tide from 1878 to 1994 in Florida. There have been over 184 months of red tide in the 27 years since then. Over half of Florida’s waterways are officially declared “impaired,” and the state has issued 23,000 permits for the discharge of pollution into our waterways during the past 50 years. This is all evidence that the system isn’t working. We need a new approach to environmental protection, and recognizing the right of people to clean water and the rights of waterways is that new approach.”

Mary Gutierrez, Founder and Director of Earth Ethics, based in Pensacola, Florida, added, “Northwest Florida is experiencing significant growth that is causing the loss of species habitat, surface water contamination, and increased flooding due to poor planning and increased development. We must act now to protect the waterways and land that sustain us. This amendment will do just that.”

John Cassani, the Calusa Waterkeeper, added, “The Right to Clean Water Initiative, as a new or additive legal tool for protecting Florida's waters, may be our last best hope to save what is left.”

To qualify for the ballot, the Right to Clean Water state initiative must collect nearly 900,000 signatures over the next eight months. Those interested in signing the petitions to qualify the amendments are encouraged to go to www.FL5.org and download, sign, and mail-in the petitions.

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Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights is building a global movement to advance the rights of nature into law.

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