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Constitutional right to clean water is "a lion, a catalyst, a shield, a key"

“Constitutions are the highest and strongest form of law and also reflect the deepest and most cherished values of a society. As a South African judge once wrote, constitutions are a 'mirror of a nation’s soul.'”  (David R. Boyd, special rapporteur to the United Nations.) *


State constitutions work similarly. Does Florida’s?


In many ways it does, but not in all ways. It does not reflect how deeply Floridians cherish the natural world, especially our waters. We love and value our springs, rivers, lakes, bays, coastal waters, and wetlands. Florida is not Florida without them.


If our state constitution mirrored how deeply we cherish this most precious resource, we would have a constitutional right to clean and healthy waters. Instead, we merely have a policy statement: “It shall be the policy of the state to conserve and protect its natural resources and scenic beauty.”


That’s not good enough. Imagine if our right to free speech, to vote, or to due process were policies, not fundamental rights enshrined in the highest law of the land. They’d be prey to shifting political winds and special interests and be in the same condition our polluted waters are in.


What David Boyd says about a human right to a healthy environment is applicable to our “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” amendment.


“Many efforts to achieve climate and environmental justice,” he states, “are David and Goliath struggles. The opponents of progress are powerful, wealthy elites with vested interests in prolonging the status quo because it benefits them immensely.” 


FloridaRightToCleanWater.org, our supporting organizations, and every voter who has and who will sign our petition, are David. Powerful industries (more so than wealthy elites) and the pollution politics they impose upon our environmental regulatory system are Goliath.


“The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment,” Mr. Boyd continues, “could be a mere paper tiger, a set of inspiring words that are inscribed in resolutions and laws, yet rarely acted upon. But in most [nations], it should be a mighty lion with a resounding roar.”


Once enshrined in our state constitution, that’s what our “Right to Clean and Healthy Waters” can be—a “mighty lion with a resounding roar.”


It is “a potentially powerful tool, with the potential to serve as a catalyst for transformative changes. It’s a shield to block unsustainable laws, policies and projects…It’s a key to unlock the door to inclusive public participation and access to justice.”


Our amendment is all these things. Americans in approximately twenty other states must hold constitutional environmental rights in similar high regard, because they, like us, are pursuing constitutional amendments.



In “The Value of Constitutional Environmental Rights and Public Trusts,” Professor Emeritus John C. Dernbach, echoes Mr. Boyd’s statements in less poetic terms: “Constitutions play a role that the common law cannot play in environmental protection. They provide limits on the exercise of governmental authority. They provide a means of invalidating inconsistent statutes, regulations, and other laws. They have been used to improve access to the courts and strengthen and expand traditional public trust protections…Constitutional environmental provisions are at the apex in our hierarchy of environmental and natural resources laws.”

 

Activists in all those other states are pursuing their amendments through their state legislatures. Only we are taking the route of a citizens’ initiative. It is a hard path, but a fitting one, and will be all that much more meaningful and rewarding when we succeed.


*David R. Boyd, "The Right to a Healthy Environment, A User's Guide." The United Nations declared access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment a universal human right in 2022.



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