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Guest Comment: Right to clean water in Orange County is important to all of Southwest Florida

By Staff | Oct 7, 2020

Southwest Floridians should know about a historic ballot initiative in Orange County, Charter Question #1: Prohibiting Pollution of all Waters of Orange County, including the Wekiva and the Econlock-hatchee Rivers. It’s also known as The Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights, and it’s the first of its kind in Florida and first countywide initiative in the nation.

The importance of this amendment to us is two-fold.

First, it would mean cleaner SWFL waterways. Pollution in Orange County in the form of nutrient run-off makes its way into Lake Okeechobee. When the Army Corp of Engineers releases water into the Caloosahatchee River, we in SWFL can suffer ugly and unhealthy blue-green algae blooms and more virulent red tides. Everyone remembers 2018 when our canals were covered with green slime, people and pets were made ill, our beaches were lined with thousands of tons of dead marine life, and our tourist economy was hard hit. This amendment would help fix the problem by curtailing pollution north of us.

Second, passing the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights makes the passage of a Caloosahatchee River Bill of Rights or an Estero Bay Bill of Rights much more likely.

This amendment would install into law the rights of these long-polluted rivers and all other waterways in Orange County to exist, flow, be free of pollution, and maintain a healthy ecosystem. It will also give citizens the right to clean water and the legal standing to defend their rights and the rights of these waterways in court.

This law is necessary because Orange County citizens, like all Floridians, do not have a right to clean water. In fact, Florida’s new Clean Waterways Act expressly says we have no rights regarding nature. Here’s what it says: “A local government regulation, ordinance, code… or any other provision of law may not… grant such person or political subdivision any specific rights relating to the natural environment not otherwise authorized in general law or specifically granted in the State Constitution.”

Let that sink in. No right to clean water, clean air, or healthy ecosystems. It’s a shocking protection of polluters over people.

Furthermore, this law is necessary because our environmental regulatory system has failed us and the ecosystems we depend upon.

In A Toxic Inconvenience, Nicholas Penniman IV, SWFL resident and chair emeritus of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, writes that from 1878 to 1994, there were only 64 months of red tide, but in the past 25 years there have been 184 months.

50,000 tons of phosphorus sit at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee, and “mismanagement of natural resources” he says, “has turned one of the building blocks of life (blue-green algae) into a potential monster.”

Under Florida’s Air and Water Pollution Control Act the state has over the past 50 years issued 23,000 pollution permits.

More than half of Florida’s 4,393 waterways, he reports, are “impaired.”

Our regulatory system clearly isn’t working statewide, in Orange County, or here in SWFL where nutrient pollution and fecal bacteria contamination continue to impair our waterways and threaten our health and economy.

Lastly, this law is necessary because if nature doesn’t have rights, it can’t be defended against corporations that do. That’s the legal reality obvious in the facts just noted.

For all the above reasons, the Orange County Charter Review Commission seeks to amend the county charter by granting citizens the right to clean water and granting nature legally recognized rights as well.

Rights provide the highest protection under law. Nothing less is needed for waterways in Orange County and here in SWFL.

Readers can learn more at www.righttocleanwater.com.

Cape Coral resident Joseph Bonasia is SWFL Regional Director for the Florida Rights of Nature Network.