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Amending the state constitution is a big deal. How did we get to this point?

Amending our state constitution is a big deal. No one should take it lightly, and it certainly is not what we originally set out to do.

Looking to protect Florida’s ecosystems, Florida Rights of Nature Network’s (FRONN) original purpose was to work at the local government level to pass laws giving rights to nature and giving citizens a right to clean water. These rights would help level the legal playing field that favors special interests and corporate rights and has led to the critical conditions we find our waters in today. (Read “A dozen ways our current system of laws have failed our waters.”)

To this end, in 2020, FRONN aided efforts to amend the Orange County Charter to give waters within the county the right to exist, flow, be free of pollution and maintain a healthy ecosystem, and to give all county residents the right to clean water. Opponents said such laws would hurt the local economy, cost jobs, and come at the sacrifice of affordable housing. Voters saw through these unfounded claims and passed the proposed amendment with an astounding 89% approval rate.

No matter their gender, political persuasion, religious beliefs, or economic status, these voters agreed that clean water is essential to the quality of their lives, and if the state cannot or will not do its job of protecting Florida waters, then citizens would do so themselves through their local governments.

Similar initiatives elsewhere around the state were greatly encouraged.

Months later, one Orange County citizen, and for the first time in the nation’s history, five bodies of water acting as plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit under the new amendment. They hoped to stop a development that would destroy 116 acres of wetlands, an obvious violation of their new rights. The court dismissed the case at the urging of both the developer and our Florida Department of Environmental Protection. They had the legislature to thank for that.

Acting swiftly in 2020 to undermine the will of county voters, legislators added one paragraph to the much heralded Clean Waterways Act. It preempted the authority of local governments to pass laws giving rights to nature or giving citizens any rights to any aspect of the natural world. Because the legislature has the power to override local governments, the court had no choice but to decide in favor of the developer and our DEP and against the manifest will of the electorate. (This ruling is being appealed.)

This preemption, one of many our legislature has passed in recent years in contradiction of the principle of home rule it professes to support, did several things.

First, it snuffed out rights of nature and right to clean water efforts throughout the state and protected special interests that benefit from the degradation of Florida’s waters and aquatic ecosystems.

Second, it revealed how fearful legislators are of a rights-based approach to environmental protection—of how effective a legal tool it can be.

Third, it moved the goal line for FRONN. If the legislature would not allow citizens through our local governments to protect our waterways, we’d have to go above their heads. That’s when we set our sights on amending the state constitution.

In 2022, FRONN formed the political committee as necessitated by Florida law. Seeking to qualify a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” amendment for the 2024 ballot, it launched its campaign on April 22nd, Earth Day. The campaign collected over 100,000 petitions, short of the number of petitions needed, but an impressive achievement for a volunteer effort on a shoestring budget.

Starting anew, this time with a robust volunteer infrastructure, a significant degree of public awareness, and help from campaign industry professionals—all things we didn’t in April ’22—we have launched our campaign to qualify a “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” amendment for the 2026 ballot.

It is strictly a human right to clean water. It establishes no rights for nature. We’ll discuss this and other aspects of the amendment language in an upcoming blog.

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