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Tampa Bay Times

It saved Chesapeake Bay, and Floridians could use it to save our waters, too | Column

By Wayne Mills,

A manatee floats in a canal at Port Everglades on Jan. 18, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Manatees gather in the winter months in canal waters warmed by a nearby Florida Power & Light power plant, where Port Everglades provides a protection zone for the manatees. [ LYNNE SLADKY | AP ]

Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. Congress subsequently voted to override a veto by President Richard Nixon and it became law. The purpose was to provide a guarantee that all Americans would have access to clean and healthy waters throughout America.

History has proven that legislation wasn’t always enough to afford these protections to our waterways. There have been numerous cases where our waters were so polluted that they were dangerous and unusable for recreation, swimming and fishing. Lawsuits often had to be filed against those creating the sources of pollution and the degradation of the waters involved.

I served as chairman of the board of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It became clear at that time that after decades of broken promises by the six states and the District of Columbia bordering on the Chesapeake that we weren’t going to save the bay at the rate we were going.

The only alternative to save the bay was to file suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require the states in question to meet their obligations under the Clean Water Act to restore the waters of the Chesapeake to meet the Clean Water Standards. The suit was filed and a settlement reached in 2010 with EPA and the six states. Shortly after, we were sued by various agricultural interests primarily in the Midwest who opposed the agreement.

The suit was defended successfully at both the district and the court of appeals levels. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear appeals, indicating the lower court rulings would stand as the law.

In Florida a similar situation exists. For decades we have watched as our lakes, springs, rivers and bays have become degraded to the point they are now listed as impaired waters. In many cases the fisheries, sea grasses and a record number of mammals (manatees) have died along with oysters, clams and numerous benthic creatures.

The common thread causing these deaths is always too much pollution from failing septic systems, broken sewers, failing sewerage treatment systems, untreated storm-water runoff from urban and suburban settings, including agriculture.

The guarantee needed here is that clean water protection needs to be included in the Constitution of Florida. Hence, the need for the Right to Clean Water Amendment. This will prohibit the pollution of Florida’s waters by recognizing a right to clean water for all Floridians and Florida waters.

Among other things, this amendment will provide that:

  • Every Floridian has a right to clean water.
  • “Clean Water” shall mean waters free of the non-natural presence of any one or more substances, contaminants, or pollutants in quantities which are or may be potentially harmful or injurious to human health or welfare, animals, fish, plant life, water quality or which may unreasonably interfere with the environment or life or property, including outdoor recreation.

Only three states have these protections in their constitutions — Pennsylvania, Montana and New York — but several more are attempting to add them.

Most recently the EPA notified Shawn Hamilton, Florida Secretary of Environmental Protection, that Florida needs revised water quality standards to comply with the U.S. Clean Water Act.

I encourage all those who care to have Florida’s environment protected and restored to visit and to learn more about this proposed amendment.

Wayne A. Mills, former board chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, lives on North Hutchinson Island, Florida. This piece, originally published in TCPalm, is part of the Invading Sea, a collaborative of Florida editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times, focused on the threats posed by the warming climate.

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