Though Florida might be the state surrounded by the most water in the mainland, the right to access clean drinking water is not a guarantee for many Floridians.
Home to several prominent industries from tourism to urban development, the state’s executive branch arguably favors industries that engage in pollution by enabling lenient regulations and weak legislative measures, according to Florida residents like Cheryl Lasse.
“Most people would be surprised to learn that Floridians do not have a right to clean water,” said Lasse, the director of information management for Florida’s Right to Clean Water Campaign. “It’s a huge economic, quality of life and public health issue.”
Many of these industries that contribute to the pollution problem are involved in industrial activities where excess waste and toxins are released as byproducts into nearby bodies of water.
With substantial population growth and heightened precipitation from climate change, the over 30-year-old wastewater treatment plants have become too small for the required wastewater volume. Their capability is limited, processing only a select range of chemicals. Those that are not processed are released into waterways, leading to increasing levels of toxic runoff.
This toxic runoff entering the water supply has caused drastic environmental consequences for Florida’s wildlife and had a huge impact on local communities, oftentimes resulting in hundreds of thousands of aquatic creatures and wildlife being killed and washed onto shore.
Even more dangerous, toxic contaminants in the water are entering aquifers that are responsible for providing communities clean drinking water.
Exposure to these chemicals in communities has been posing health concerns, especially for vulnerable communities as toxic runoff in water can lead to waterborne diseases and critical health issues among residents.
Economic wellbeing of Florida communities dependent on tourism, fishing and other water industries may lose their businesses or months of revenue without access to clean water.
According to Lasse, Florida’s Right to Clean Water Campaign aims to combat the damaging effects of pollution by drafting an amendment that will force the state to take action.
“We would like to make the right to clean water be something that everyone has access to, regardless of socioeconomic status,” said Lasse. “Everybody should have that as a basic right, just as they have the right to free speech.”
Requiring 900,000 petition signatures by the end of 2023 for ballot inclusion, the amendment explicitly outlines actions and omissions that are a detriment to water quality.
The amendment defines “clean and healthy waters” and recognizes the fundamental right of the people to have access to this resource. Providing an inclusive list of relief violations, it describes potential remedies to restore waters to their normal conditions.
Granting legal remedies for violations, the amendment would enable residents, non-governmental organizations or government entities to uphold and safeguard these rights by legally challenging state-backed industries.
For Floridians, the amendment will also enable the implementation of Basin Management Action Plans (BMAP) to control pollution levels in their water. BMAPs set limits for how much pollution runoff is allowed to be released into the environment.
Biscayne Bay is one community that has been of concern among residents because of the lack of BMAPs. Without regulation on how much one can pollute, the bay continues to be legally flushed with pollutants and toxins that are harmful to humans and the environment.
In August 2020, the effects of the unregulated toxins in the bay showed just how much of an impact it has on wildlife. With a combination of several environmental factors, the effects of climate change and unregulated pollution, over 27,000 marine creatures from 56 different species were killed, making it the largest recorded fish kill in Biscayne Bay history.
As these stats highlighted the consequences of toxic water and the dire need for regulation and improved infrastructure, Florida’s Free Water Campaign proposed this amendment to have a significant impact on the restoration of the bay and its ecosystem, along with improving water quality in various other locations in the state.
“Everything from the beach, to the canals, to the water we drink can be cleaner, “ said the Student Government’s ECO Agency chair Ainsley Hilliard. “The act is so important for all Florida residents to be aware of, because we are the one’s holding the power to make a difference.”
According to Lasse, passing this act will allow for the people to hold the Florida Department of Environmental Protection accountable and create implementations of BMAPs so that areas like Biscayne Bay in South Florida and several other locations in the state can be restored and protected.
Florida’s Right to Clean Water Campaign ultimately aims to take the first step to protecting the state’s most valuable resource and addressing the effects of Florida’s wastewater issues. With the potential to enact meaningful change, Lasse argues it is up to Floridians to unite and stand up for their rights as residents.
“The current system protects polluters,” said Lasse. “It puts a lot of vulnerable communities in harm’s way. Our amendment is going to fix that and create much-needed equality.”