What The Water 'Declaration' Actually Does

Jan 24, 2014

Water issues are taking center stage in the run up to Florida’s 2014 legislative session, and this week environmental activists joined together to declare that every Floridian has the right to clean water. They’re pressuring politicians to sign a recently-drafted “declaration” of water rights that was the subject of statewide rallies this week. But, since the declaration is neither petition, nor legislation, some wonder: to what end?

Members of 100 different environmental groups held simultaneous rallies in 16 different Florida cities this week to highlight the multitude of water issues facing the Sunshine State. In Tampa, the Sierra Club’s Pat Kemp rattled off a few of those issues to a small, yet enthusiastic crowd.

“We’re all at risk with water pollution: toxic algae fueled by fertilizer, sewage and animal manure and unrestrained over consumption of water resources. We’re gathering from around the state in 16 different communities to make a stand here today for clean water in Florida,” Kemp said.

Florida’s waterways and aquifers seem to be under attack from all sides. With overconsumption leading to the collapse of the Apalachicola oyster industry in the North to toxic algae blooms killing sea life in the central and southern parts of the state. Speaking at Orlando’s clean water event, Altamonte Springs Republican Senator David Simmons praised Governor Rick Scott for his recent $55-million pledge to restore the state’s natural springs. But he said that’s only the beginning.

“And it’s the day after the governor has announced his 55-million dollar commitment to the restoration and preservation of our springs. You know, I look at that and say it’s a good start,” Simmons told a activists and reporters in Orlando.

Simmons is leading a bipartisan group of senators in crafting an expansive measure to regulate and restore Florida’s waterways, lakes and aquifers. But, his House colleagues like Tallahassee Democratic Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, haven’t put anything in writing yet.  Rehwinkel Vasilinda reassured reporters at the capital city’s clean water rally that the House still has plenty of time to submit a bill.

“The legislature has been meeting on these issues. I don’t have any specific legislation as of yet, but we have until March to file all of our bills. So, we’ll see what comes about then,” Rehwinkle Vasilinda said.

The tone and participants of Wednesday’s clean water events varied but, they all had one thing in common – a call for citizens and politicians alike to sign the environmental coalition’s “declaration of water rights.” Activists hope to gather 100-thousand signatures, including that of the governor himself. Earthjustice attorney David Guest, whose group is part of the so-called “environmental 100,” said the governor has a responsibility to sign the digital document.

“We have a crisis all over the state with contaminated water, threatening people’s drinking water, threatening our children. This is simply a declaration of rights saying that Floridians have a right to clean water and government and industry have a responsibility to work together,” Guest argued.

Scott’s already announced his intention to further fund water restoration projects, but Florida State University sociologist Deana Rohlinger said putting all of Florida’s water issues in a single declaration may help bolster public awareness.

“We might think about Florida is battling surrounding states over water, we might think about algae blooms, or we might think about pollution but, we rarely think of – oh wow these issues are all really connected,” Rohlinger pointed out.  

Rohlinger said having diverse groups collaborate on a single document and stage simultaneous events can help activists capitalize on the conversation taking place right now in the Legislature. She also believes there are benefits to asking the governor to sign their declaration, even if he never signs on.

“It allows him an opportunity to throw them some additional support, even if he decides not to ultimately sign the declaration. In the long term, if the group or the coalition gets angry at the governor, they can use this as leverage. Yes, we repeatedly asked him to sign this declaration which he refused to do so. So it has short-term and long-term benefits,” Rohlinger continued.

Ultimately, Rohlinger said, standing behind clean water is politically advantageous for politicians in both parties. No word yet on whether the governor intends to sign the declaration. The declaration currently has more than 1600 signatures.