New law will allow people of Toledo to act as legal guardians for Lake Erie, and polluters could be sued to pay for cleanup costs

Satellite images capture the algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2017.
Satellite images capture the algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2017. Photograph: OLI/Landsat 8/Nasa

When they first started talking about doing something about the algae blooms in Lake Erie, which had made the once pristine water green and slimy and unhealthy from agricultural phosphorous runoff, people in Toledo, Ohio didn’t really know what to do. “Sometimes it was almost like all of us were at a funeral and we felt we had just seen the lake die,” said Tish O’Dell, a community organizer who specializes in environmental issues.

But this week, more than four years after the devastating algae bloom in 2014 that cut off drinking water for 500,000 people, Toledo voters passed the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, a unique charter amendment that establishes the huge lake as a person and grants it the legal rights that a human being or corporation would have.

The final results weren’t even close, as it passed by a 61% to 39% margin.

Now the “rights of nature” movement is already spreading from the midwest to the rest of the US. Organizers behind the vote say they have heard from representatives of communities in Silicon Valley, counties around Salt Lake City in Utah, citizens of states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay and cities along the Atlantic coast in Maine.

“We had representatives from Florida who came up here to work on our campaign because they want to see what they can do about the recent big algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico they have suffered from,” said Markie Miller, a local Toledo theater manager and one of the organizers for getting the bill on the ballot.

There have been a few countries that have granted rights to designated forests and river watersheds – Ecuador, New Zealand, India and Colombia – but these have mostly involved claims by indigenous peoples who feel their rights have been violated by excessive timber logging or road construction along rivers, not environmental problems in the US rust belt.

Nor have any of them been as large as the Lake Erie river watershed, which encompasses 30,000 sq miles of land in both the US and Canada. That’s one reason why the Lake Erie “personhood” movement is so different from the others.

The new law will allow the people of Toledo to act as legal guardians for Lake Erie – as if the citizens were the parents and the lake were their child – and polluters of the lake could be sued to pay for cleanup costs and prevention programs. It is one of the first of its kind in the US, as it grants human rights to a body of water that is 10,000 sq miles in size, provides drinking water for 11 million people and has four states and two countries along its 870 miles of shoreline.

“It was definitely a long, hard struggle … but all the hard work and countless volunteer hours by everyone in our local community group has paid off,” said Crystal Jankowski, a Toledoans for Safe Water organizer.

Despite its overwhelming passage, the ballot initiative caused much consternation in Ohio. A radio campaign paid by opponents of the Lake Erie bill said it was being pushed by “out-of-state extremists”.

Many in the business and agricultural community think “that its passage means Ohio farmers, taxpayers and businesses now face the prospect of costly legal bills”, and that the measure would “likely be found unconstitutional and unenforceable”, according to a statement by the Ohio Farm Bureau this week.

“To be quite frank about this, the reaction of the farmer and business lobbyists and some politicians who had opposed this bill makes me think that they have had long enough time to show results in getting the lake clean from their efforts,” said Bryan Twitchell, a Toledo school teacher who worked on getting the bill on the ballot.

“We found out we were better off standing up for our interests in this and we can do a better job of running this lake cleanup ourselves,” he said.

Twitchell said with the election won, now might be a time for rest, but is very cautionary about that attitude. “We know the next part of this process will be having to put our hopes in the hands of lawyers.”

He is right about that. Yesterday morning, just 12 hours after the final votes had been counted, the first lawsuit was filed in the US district court in Toledo by the owners of a farm that grows corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa 40 miles south-east of Toledo. The lawsuit contends that the Lake Erie Bill of Rights measure is unconstitutional and unlawful and will put the fifth-generation family farm at risk.