Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Inside the fight to give Florida rivers legal rights

The Wekiva River in central Florida. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Wekiva River flows 16 miles through central Florida, a kayaking and canoeing haven that’s part of several protected conservation areas. But fertilizer runoff from yards and farming operations have dumped more than four times the amount of nitrates in the river than it should have, according to state environmental regulators. People living in DeBary, where the Wekiva joins the St. Johns River — the largest river in the state — suffer the consequences: In recent years, algae blooms have caused massive fish kills and public health concerns. The blooms’ pungent, rotting smell can fill the air for weeks at a time. It becomes a blighted paradise. 

To protect the river — and the communities and ecosystems around it — from further harm, a group of Floridians want to give it legal rights. 

“We need agriculture. We need to eat agricultural products. We also need clean water,” said Chuck O’Neal, the former vice president of the League of Women Voters in Florida and the director of the Florida Rights of Nature Network. “There has to be a balance between agriculture and clean water, and that balance is not being found within the state regulations.”

Federal law considers nature as property of either private citizens or the government, and Florida law allows lawsuits alleging environmental degradation if a person can show that they were personally harmed, or if a company or agency violates regulations. “Rights of nature” laws claim that ecosystems are independent and have a right to flourish — and that citizens should be able to bring action in civil court by suing over past or future degradation. 

The movement is gaining traction in Florida, where more than a dozen counties and cities have begun the process of establishing rights of nature. The state Democratic party adopted rights of nature as part of its platform last year. In early February, a group of activists formalized the Florida Rights of Nature Network and appointed regional and state leaders, including O’Neal. 

“We are attempting to change the paradigm to give the lakes, the rivers, the right to exist, the right to flow, and the right to maintain a healthy ecosystem,” he said.

Although it is known for its beaches and waterways, water quality issues have long plagued wetlands, rivers, and lakes in Florida, which is home to a massive agriculture industry ranging from sugar to cattle. Major rivers and the Everglades are in poor health due to fertilizer runoff. In 2018, researchers found the Indian River Lagoon in eastern Florida — one of the northern hemisphere’s most biodiverse estuaries —  has a record amount of microplastics in marine invertebrates. In the last few years, inland and Gulf Coast communities have been devastated by blue-green algae and toxic red tide outbreaks, putting a $5 to 8 billion fishing industry and a $67 billion tourism industry at risk

A researcher tests the Indian River Lagoon for harmful algal blooms. Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research/Flickr

But Florida’s Republican-dominated legislature has been reluctant to strengthen environmental regulation or take action on climate change (former Gov. Rick Scott reportedly banned the term) and some of the state’s regulatory agencies have been criticized for being influenced by the sugar industry and other business interests. Environmental advocates argue that agriculture companies and state agencies should be held accountable for harm they’ve caused.

Desperate to protect local waterways and natural resources, more than three dozen communities and sovereign tribal nations across the U.S. — and in other countries like Ecuador and New Zealand — have established rights of nature in the last decade. Pittsburgh protected land from fracking in 2010. The Yurok Tribe in California granted rights of personhood to the Klamath River last year. Toledo, Ohio, voters passed a Lake Erie Bill of Rights that allows citizens to sue on behalf of the lake.

“They’ve grown slowly –– one community at a time,” said Thomas Linzey, senior counsel for the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, who has helped organize rights of nature initiatives in Florida and around the U.S.  

At least 14 counties in Florida, as well as some cities like Sarasota, are working on measures to introduce later this year through the citizen ballot initiative process. In Alachua County, where Gainesville is, the Santa Fe River Bill of Rights would provide citizens with legal recourse from the threat of proposed phosphate mining. On the Gulf Coast in Lee County, the Caloosahatchee Bill of Rights strives to lessen the future impacts of algal blooms. 

Recent surveys show that the majority of Floridians are concerned about climate change and environmental issues like algal blooms, and many support restoring regulations that stop polluters from releasing toxins into the water and air. Cameron La Follette, who authored two books on the rights of nature, said these laws are difficult to implement since they require a change in culture, too. To make it easier to digest, she often compares the laws to the Endangered Species Act. 

“It’s been used very successfully to bring species back from the brink,” she said. “Its whole idea is that a species has a right to exist, and if humans are interfering with that, we take actions to restrain ourselves [so] the species can flourish again.”

Pushback has been swift from some officials, lawmakers, and powerful corporate interests. The Florida Farm Bureau openly challenged rights for the Wekiva River, saying the 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act covers groundwater monitoring and that the new amendment was “fraught with vaguely worded phrases” that would make it difficult for officials to interpret. 

In January, Republican State Sen. Ben Albritton filed a bill that would ban localities from extending legal rights of nature — before the Florida Rights of Nature Network was even formalized. Rep. Blaise Ingoglia introduced a companion bill called the Environmental Protection Act, which says there are enough environmental regulations in Florida. “This will be chaos and will damage our tremendous economy,” he told a House committee earlier this month. (Neither office returned requests for comment.)

Water quality is a “health crisis,” said Sherry Schaub, who is helping lead the effort to protect the Caloosahatchee River, which drains rural areas of the northern Everglades to the coast near Fort Myers. Schaub is from Toledo, and claims the drinking water there exposed her to cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, which made her and others ill. She was involved in helping establish rights for Lake Erie, which are now being challenged in court. Enacting rights of nature laws was her main goal when moving to Florida, she said from a Florida hospital where she’s being treated for health issues. “I think that [lawmakers] are really scared of the change,” she added. “They’re more for the corporations than they are for their own constituents.”

An algal bloom on St. Johns River in Florida. Photo by FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s called himself a “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” has yet to comment on his constituents’ rights of nature initiatives, but in September he requested a recurring $625 million to fund Everglades restoration and protection of Florida’s water resources. 

Despite the long road ahead — the Wekiva Bill of Rights is awaiting a final vote by the county in March that will decide if it can be on the ballot — O’Neal is optimistic about the movement’s momentum, which he says is necessary for the future of Florida as the climate changes.

“It’s not just an object. It has rights. It has as much right to exist as we do. We’re all on this planet,” he said. “We’re talking about restoring the rights of nature because this is the way it was before the white settlers came to this land.”

Xander Peters is a recovering Florida politics reporter, now a freelance journalist in New Orleans. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Reason, and Earther, among others.