Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

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We hear a lot of claims to rights these days — animal rights, voting rights, human rights. So how about a body of water, does it have rights?

You won’t find that question on many election ballots. But in perhaps the most unusual question ever posed on a big-city ballot, the idea is being taken up today in Toledo, Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie. Yes, as you read this, voters there are deciding if a body of water has the rights normally associated with those of a person. Specifically, does Lake Erie have the legal right “to exist, flourish and naturally evolve?”

The proposed Lake Erie Bill of Rights is part of a growing effort to carve out legal status for elements of nature, including rivers, forests, mountains and wild rice (that’s right, rice!), according to reporting in The New York Times. In this case, the health of Lake Erie is in serious question given recent environmental blows, including algal blooms during summer, runoffs of fertilizer and animal manure from farms, and ongoing threats from invasive species such as zebra mussels and Asian carp.

But if voters approve, won’t the designation just be symbolic? No, because it’s as much a legal strategy as a statement. If the lake gets legal rights, or so the thinking goes, people can sue polluters on its behalf. After all, Lake Erie is a major factor to life in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, as well as Ontario.

Lake Erie is the world’s 11th largest lake and one of the five connected Great Lakes that together hold 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. In addition to the negative impact that environmental problems put on boating and tourism, the lake is also the water supply for millions of people.

The momentum for the ballot issue began in 2014 when Toledo had to declare its drinking water unsafe for three days while it battled a midsummer algae bloom in Lake Erie. It got so bad that Toledo’s household water was only fit to flush toilets. The lake surface had become a sea of green slime from phosphorus-laden farm runoff.

Thomas Linzey, executive director of the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, reportedly helped write the measure. He says the intent of the ballot issue is to declare that existing environmental laws are inadequate. The issue emphasizes that people are fed up with a lack of state and federal action to protect Lake Erie, and to force the courts to recognize that rivers have a right to flow, forests have a right to thrive, and lakes have a right to be clean.

Sadly, the 2014 Toledo water crisis has not resulted in state or federal crackdowns on the many farms in western Ohio, which use fertilizers that contain phosphorus. This washes into streams and, eventually, the rivers that feed the lake.

Once in the lake, the phosphorus feeds the algae, which produces microcystin, a toxin that can cause diarrhea, vomiting and liver-function problems in humans and can kill small animals that ingest it.

Lakes do not have legal standing, so people can’t sue on their behalf. It seems certain that if Toledo voters pass the measure, it will be challenged in courts and could eventually be declared invalid because it simply overreaches city law. But no matter what, it will make a loud statement.

Meanwhile, as you might expect, the key opponents are farmers. They say that if the issue passes, thousands of small farms could be sued for damages for polluting the lake and driven out of business.

AdvertisementEven if that concept never becomes the law of the land, the group says that its efforts are meant to make it clear that places like Toledo will oppose whatever they see as environmental degradation. But there’s a broader idea, too: re-examining how we think about nature and the individuals in it.

About the wild rice: The White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota announced that it had granted wild rice its own legal rights, including the “right to pure water.”


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