What is the “Right to Clean Water” Initiative?
In early June of this year, the Orange County Charter Review Commission (a Commission of 15 members appointed by the Orange County Commissioners), voted to place the “Right to Clean Water” initiative onto the November ballot. If passed by the voters of Orange County, the Initiative would do three things – first, recognize a right to clean water for Orange County residents and the County’s waterways, including the Wekiva and Econlockhatchee Rivers; second, establish the ability of Orange residents to bring legal actions to protect that right to clean water; and third, guarantee that waterways be restored after any pollution occurs.
How is “Clean Water” Defined by the Initiative?
“Clean water” is defined within the Initiative as water that is not polluted. For the definition of “pollution,” the initiative uses the same standards already existing in Florida statutes that the state of Florida uses to determine whether a waterway is polluted. Specifically, that state statute defines pollution as the presence of contaminants or toxins which are, or may be, harmful to human health, animal and plant life, or to water quality.
Who votes on the Right to Clean Water Initiative?
All registered voters of Orange County, Florida can vote on Charter Question #1 on their November ballot. The ballot title of the Right to Clean Water Initiative is “PROHIBITING POLLUTION OF THE WEKIVA RIVER, ECONLOCKHATCHEE RIVER AND ALL OTHER WATERS OF ORANGE COUNTY.” It will appear as Question #1 on the Orange County November ballot.
Why Should I Vote “Yes” on the Right to Clean Water Initiative?
As reported over the last several years, Florida’s waterways are in crisis. The state has issued over 23,000 pollution permits to industries, and over half of all Florida waterways have been declared to be “impaired.” Many Orange County waterways are currently in peril, and all have some level of contamination. Almost all of Orange County’s drinking water supplied to our homes comes from groundwater and surfacewater, so protection of those sources is essential to protecting clean water.
Unfortunately, Florida’s regulatory system has proven itself highly subject to corporate influence and changing political winds, even in the face of this water crisis. The Right to Clean Water Initiative represents a new effort to make clean water a legally enforceable “right” to remove it from day-to-day politics and guarantee clean waterways and clean water.
Check out the water atlas and look up the quality of the water in your neighborhood. This resource highlights Orange County’s “impaired” waterways:
Also, the Fish Consumption Advisory provides additional information about the waters you are eating fish from: https://dchpexternalapps.doh.state.fl.us/fishadvisory/
What Type of Health Issues are Related to Water Quality?
The presence of contaminants in our water can lead to serious health issues over a period of time, including gastrointestinal illness, cancers, reproductive problems, and neurological disorders. Increased levels of nitrates in the water have been shown to have serious impacts on human health. Infants who consume high nitrates through drinking water may develop shortness of breath and “blue baby syndrome” which can be fatal. Young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and immunocompromised persons may be especially at risk for becoming ill from unfiltered contaminates in the drinking water.
What are the Other Benefits of Having Clean Water?
“Welcome to the City Beautiful” are the first words that tourists hear when they arrive in Orange County. Tourism is Florida’s #1 industry, with over 70 million people visiting Orange County annually. Studies show that one job is created for every 85 visitors. Tourism suffers when people are afraid of contamination or disease from the water. Without clean water, tourism and good paying jobs are at great risk.
How Many Charter Questions will be on the Ballot this Election?
There are three Charter questions on the ballot for 2020. The Right to Clean Water Initiative will be the first of the questions to appear in the section on the ballot designated for Charter Questions.
If the Right to Clean Water Initiative Passes, Could I, as an Individual, Get Sued Under the Initiative?
No. The Initiative’s enforcement provisions only apply to business entities and governments. They cannot be applied against individuals. The relevant part of the Initiative only “prohibits any governmental agency, non-natural person or corporate entity” from polluting waterways in Orange County.
What is a ‘Non-Natural’ person?
As defined by state and federal law, a “non-natural” person means any business entity other than a corporation. The phrase does not include an individual person.
Will the Initiative Hold Individuals Responsible for Losing Fishing Lines or Fishing Lures in the Water, for Exhaust from Boats, or For Cutting Down a Tree on my Property?
No. The Initiative only applies to business entities and governments who pollute the waterways of Orange County.
If Passed, Will the Initiative Open the Door to a Floodgate of Frivolous Lawsuits?
No. The Orange County Charter Review Commission, and the committee that met for over nine months drafting the Initiative, narrowly wrote the Initiative so that enforcement actions can only be brought under specific circumstances. Those include instances where Florida state pollution standards are violated, or when pollution affects the ability of an entire waterway to function. In addition, the Initiative’s enforcement provisions are limited to just business entities and governments, so individual persons could not be the subject of lawsuits.
Given those constraints, lawsuits filed under the Initiative would likely be few, also because proving a violation of the right to clean water would require scientific and factual evidence – including evidence from multiple experts including biologists, hydrologists, chemists, and physicians. Another narrowing factor is that such cases would only be brought if state and federal protections for waterways were determined to be inadequate.
If Passed, Would the Initiative Affect the Economy of Orange County?
Yes. Likely for the better. Adding extra protections from pollution for the waters of Orange County is good for business and for the health of our residents and the natural environment. The health of our commerce depends, in large part, on the health of our natural environment. Employers want clean water, for their businesses and for their employees. The Right to Clean Water Initiative will boost our economy, create jobs that build upon a clean water infrastructure, and increase our tax base. Simply put, clean water drives job creation. See https://en.unesco.org/news/water-drives-job-creation-and-economic-growth-says-new-report
If Passed, Would the Initiative Threaten the Development of Affordable housing?
No. Affordable housing and clean water are both desperately needed in Orange County. Given the narrowness of the Initiative, and the targeting of those pollution activities that violate Florida state law or which affect waterways as a whole, the development of affordable housing and the Right to Clean Water Initiative do not conflict. And, as asked recently by one Orange resident, “Why should anyone have to choose between an affordable home and having clean water?”
Similar Ballot Initiatives Have Been Overturned by the Courts in Other States, Why Would it Work Here?
In Ohio recently, a Toledo law that recognized heightened protections for Lake Erie was overturned by a court on the basis that a City lacked the power to protect the Lake, which touches multiple countries, states, and counties. The Right to Clean Water Initiative, however, only protects those waters which exist within the boundaries of Orange County, and thus, only affects the residents of Orange County, not the residents of other jurisdictions.
Is this Initiative Coming from Outside Entities that do not Reside in Florida?
No. The original Right to Clean Water Initiative was proposed by Speak Up Wekiva, an Orange County organization with a history of protecting the Wekiva River. Over a span of nine months, it was drafted and re-drafted by a committee created by the Orange County-appointed Charter Review Commission. It was then approved to be placed onto the November ballot by the full Charter Review Commission. Throughout the process of public hearings and meetings, Orange County residents have proposed changes and comments to the draft. Various Orange County groups have also endorsed the Right to Clean Water Initiative.