Titusville fails to thwart a voter-approved "right to clean water"
The environmental advocates behind a “right to clean water” referendum overwhelmingly approved last year by Titusville voters won in court for a second time Thursday, when a judge ruled in the advocates' favor, directing the city to certify the charter amendment.
More than 82% of Titusville voters approved the referendum last November, but the city still hasn’t certified those votes — despite a judge’s May order for it to do exactly that.
Representatives for the city and Speak Up Titusville, the nonprofit that campaigned for the referendum, appeared before a different judge Thursday for a rehearing requested by the city of Titusville.
Michael Myjak chairs Speak Up Titusville and serves as vice-chair for Titusville’s Environmental Protection Commission. He likens the right to clean water to the right to free speech or religion.
“There’s no reason that the city should be fighting this, because those people need to drink clean water, too,” Myjak said. “We’re not talking about the specifics of what they’re doing to treat the water for our homes, that’s something else. We’re talking about our environment.”
Myjak said the area’s ecology is “collapsing,” pointing specifically to poor water quality in the Indian River Lagoon.
Titusville area waters received the lowest possible grade — an “F minus minus” — on the most recent annual “report card” published by Marine Resources Council, a Brevard-based nonprofit working to restore the lagoon to “sustainable balance” by 2050.
Florida's growing movement for a right to clean water
A Titusville spokesperson told WMFE News the city does not comment on pending litigation. In its initial complaint filed last year, the city argues that the proposed charter amendment would violate Florida law: specifically, CS/SB 712, also known as the “Clean Waterways Act,” which state lawmakers approved in 2020.
That law created new statutory language that blocks local governments from recognizing or granting “any legal rights to a plant, an animal, a body of water, or any other part of the natural environment that is not a person or political subdivision.”
The Titusville charter amendment approved by a majority of voters last November is one local iteration of a statewide campaign for a “right to clean water” constitutional amendment, endorsed by the Florida Rights of Nature Network (FRONN).
According to FRONN, the proposed amendment to Florida’s constitution is not a “rights of nature” law. Such laws grant inalienable rights to natural entities like forests and wetlands, versus simply viewing them as property, according to the International Joint Commission.
Last summer, a judge struck down Orange County’s charter amendment aimed at protecting rights of nature, which voters also overwhelmingly approved in 2020.
But the clean water amendment advocates want to add to Florida’s constitution is different, FRONN says:
“Instead of a right of nature, the amendment creates a fundamental human right to nature, because the health of our families, the strength of our economy, and the wildlife we cherish, among other things, all depend upon clean and healthy waters,” FRONN’s website reads.
"It should outweigh property rights"
For Myjak, a retired rocket scientist and simulation modeler who’s lived in Brevard County for more than thirty years, it’s “heartbreaking” to watch the lagoon’s biodiversity and overall health plummet.
“I want my children and my grandchildren to be able to fish and swim in this lagoon. And I don't see that that's gonna be possible if we keep going in the direction we're going,” Myjak said.
That’s why, Myjak says, a fundamental right to clean water is so important: “It should outweigh property rights, because no one person should have the authority or the capability, without oversight, to destroy a natural habitat.”
But Myjak says that’s exactly what’s happening in Titusville, as residential and commercial development ramps up.
“[The lagoon is] just not improving. And it's not improving because the problem continues to exist,” Myjak said. “And that's excess freshwater, [which] is poisonous in the Indian River Lagoon, as an estuary, and people don't seem to get that: that just the volume of it is too much.”
Estuaries like the Indian River Lagoon, where freshwater meets the ocean, are delicate ecosystems that can suffer when certain conditions change: including the lagoon’s salinity, or saltiness. For example, certain types of fish eggs will float or sink, depending on the water’s salinity, according to a report about the lagoon published in 2007 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
That EPA report pointed specifically to increased development and the resulting “large volumes of freshwater discharges” as a major reason for the lagoon’s deteriorating health. Although those discharges often carry harmful pollutants, excessive freshwater in itself also poses a threat to the lagoon, per the report.
There are many different ongoing efforts to improve and protect the Indian River Lagoon, including via Brevard County’s Save Our Indian River Lagoon (SOIRL) program, funded by a half-cent sales tax that county voters approved in 2016.
The SOIRL program identifies stormwater as the second-largest source of pollution to the lagoon, and includes stormwater system upgrades as a priority. But Myjak and other advocates say currently, there isn’t enough scientific data to determine how much freshwater is entering the lagoon, due to a lack of systematic monitoring.
“You have to measure it to understand it, and you have to understand it to be able to control it,” Myjak said, referencing a mantra he often heard during his former life working on network infrastructure projects for NASA.
“It has to begin with metering and measuring,” Myjak said. “We have to understand what's happening, with a critical eye and an honest look. No politics.”