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Guest Commentary: Paddling upstream

By Charlotte Newton - | Jul 28, 2021

Charlotte Newton. PHOTO PROVIDED

Today, we are at the intersection of state power and citizen determination. Our state legislators have restricted our ability to petition the government at the very moment we are watching our waters — the lifeblood of our community — be degraded and abused to the point of making us sick. Our suggested remedies go nowhere. For all the bluster and hand-wringing on their part, these legislators have choked off citizen input by making it more difficult to mount and win citizen petition campaigns, such as the Right to Clean Water initiative now underway. Facing strong governmental opposition, this initiative has hundreds of residents coalescing around and pressing for a constitutional amendment establishing “that ‘every Floridian has a right to clean water’ and giving legal standing to residents, non-governmental organizations, or government entities to sue in order to enforce or defend such rights.”

It is indeed sad that it has come to this. But we are at this juncture because our elected state governmental leaders have been unresponsive, our county commissioners remain asleep at the wheel, and our options are severely limited. The continuing pollution of our waterways (a study by the Calusa Waterkeeper of nine southwest Florida counties found a 36% increase in impaired waterbodies in Lee County between 2018 – 2020) is approaching crisis proportions.

The movement sponsoring the initiative is an international phenomenon and “nature’s rights” laws have been passed in 17 countries, including Canada, as well as dozens of U.S. cities and counties. Last November, 89% of voters in Orange County, FL (which includes Orlando) adopted a charter amendment that gives county residents the “right to clean water” and empowers them to bring lawsuits against polluters of county waterways. According to Wikipedia, this is the largest community in the U.S. to adopt a Right to Clean Water law.

Basically, this concept grew out of the global recognition of human rights, i.e., that nature, too, has certain rights that must be recognized, the belief being that human survival depends on flourishing ecosystems and species critical to the continued existence of the human race.

But our state legislators have worked hard to blunt the power of citizens to determine our own destiny by enacting SB 1890, a bill that throws up obstacles to those seeking to put constitutional proposals on the ballot. This bill was challenged the first day it went into effect and its implementation halted by a federal judge. In the face of these new restrictions, however, those supporting the Right to Clean Water amendment are working day in, day out to gather the needed signatures for a petition to put it on the ballot in 2022 (go to www.FL5.org to add your name to the petition). On July 28, Right to Clean Water proponents will be at the South County Public Library at 4 p.m. and available to discuss this initiative with interested citizens.

Many of us live in southwest Florida because we treasure the paradise surrounding us and have watched in horror as our water has gotten filthier and filthier. Women For a Better Lee has been a strong advocate for environmental stewardship, defined as “responsibility for environmental quality shared by all those whose actions affect the environment.” This responsibility falls on all of us, yet our local politicians have only grudgingly taken it on, far too often choosing instead to pave over land rather than conserve and preserve it.

For years, our county commissioners have stood by as water quality — not just in the Caloosahatchee and the canals in Cape Coral, but in Estero Bay, Billy’s Creek and other local waterbodies — deteriorated. Kevin Ruane’s election to our county commission has brought on a vocal water quality advocate, and hopefully he will change that dynamic. But two other commissioners, Brian Hamman and Cecil Pendergrass, both on the county commission since 2013, have sat and watched this crisis metastasize year after year without standing up for Lee residents. Their seats will be up for reelection in 2022, and it is time for the citizens of this county to say “enough.” Our vote is our voice and this next election will determine whether or not we are willing to speak up for what we believe. If we want better, we must vote for better.

Charlotte Newton, Women For a Better Lee WFBL2022@gmail.com