Toledo, Ohio, Just Granted Lake Erie the Same Legal Rights as People

A controversial referendum passed this week establishes a bill of rights for the Great Lake and grants it legal standing in suing polluters

The Lady K tow boat kicks up a wake full of green algae a few hundred feet from the city of Toledo's Water Intake on Lake Erie, for testing on Monday, August 4, 2014. Photo by Ty Wright/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Tuesday, the citizens of Toledo, Ohio, granted legal rights reserved for people to Lake Erie, the 9,940-square-mile body of water on which their city depends. According to Sigal Samuel at Vox, the passage of the controversial ballot measure marks the first time a natural resource has been granted legal status in the United States, though a precedent for doing so has been established by other countries in recent years.

The saga of Lake Erie’s personhood began in the summer of 2014, when a toxic algae bloom in the lake, powered by agricultural runoff and other pollution, led the city to turn off the spigots. The incident caused a state of emergency declaration, leaving half a million people without water for three days. The incident became the genesis of Toledoans for Safe Water, an advocacy group that works to clean up and protect the lake, as Yessenia Funes at Earther reports.

The grassroots group partnered with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to bring the Lake Erie Bill of Rights Charter Amendment, which states the lake has the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve” to a vote this week. The referendum passed with 61 percent approval in a special election. It should be noted that turnout was low, with just less than 9 percent of registered voters casting a ballot, but as Nicole Javorsky at CityLab pointed out, that dismal showing is not unusual in local special elections.

The legislation entitles the lake certain rights and empowers citizens to advocate for those rights when they are being violated, like bringing legal suits against polluters. “We’ve been using the same laws for decades to try and protect Lake Erie. They’re clearly not working,” Markie Miller of Toledoans for Safe Water says in a press release. “Beginning today, with this historic vote, the people of Toledo and our allies are ushering in a new era of environmental rights by securing the rights of the Great Lake Erie.”

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights is part of what’s being called the Rights of Nature legal movement, an idea first floated by environmental lawyer Christopher Stone in the Southern California Law Review in 1972, as Javorsky at CityLab reports. The idea is based on the legal concept of standing. Typically, before a harm can be redressed, a plaintiff needs to show that they are directly harmed by an action. By granting rights to the lake, Lake Erie can thus “stand” to sue polluters (with a little help from human attorneys, of course).

The legal strategy has been advanced in other parts of the globe. The 200-mile Whanganui River in New Zealand was granted legal standing in 2017, for instance. That same year, a court in India did the same for the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, though the nation’s supreme court overturned their statuses a few months later. Activists in Chile are also hoping to secure legal rights for their rivers, which are being dammed at a rapid pace for hydropower development. Other countries that have adopted the strategy include Bolivia and Ecuador, which have granted certain rights to "nature."

It is unclear whether the Toledo referendum will pass legal muster in U.S. courts. The day after the referendum, the Drewes Farm Partnership filed a legal challenge against the ballot initiative for being unconstitutional and unlawful, claiming that even as a business recognized for working to improve water quality it “can never guarantee that all runoff will be prevented from entering the Lake Erie watershed,” as Tom Henry at the Toledo Blade reports. In a press release, vice president Adam Sharp, executive president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, which supports the suit, critiqued the legislation for being an “overreach” that would open up Drewes’ operation and many other farmers in northern Ohio to “frivolous” lawsuits and financial risk.

Whether the law survives or not, attorney Madeline Fleisher of the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Columbus, tells Javorsky at CityLab that the legislation shows that Toledoans are not happy with the current protection level for the lake. “The citizens of Toledo are clearly and rightfully frustrated,” she says. “I understand why they’re trying novel approaches to try to get those issues addressed.”

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