Tired of worsening toxic blue-green algae in Lake Erie, the city of Toledo, Ohio fought back in a novel way by voting in favor of a Bill of Rights for the smallest Great Lake. The approved ballot measure requests an amendment to the Toledo city charter that asserts Lake Erie and its watershed hold the right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.”
Lake Erie Bill of Rights supporters hope the charter amendment will give impetus to and provide a legal framework for water protection, which has largely failed to curb pollution over the years. Opponents of the bill — like the Ohio Farm Bureau — claim that it is anti-business and unconstitutional. A federal judge sided with the opponents and issued a temporary injunction against bill.
Harmful algal blooms have wreaked havoc on the Lake Erie ecosystem by causing dead zones and transformed it into an unsafe water supply at times when the algae produces the toxin, microcystin. Spurred by decades of nutrient pollution (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) from wastewater treatment plant discharges, urban runoff, but overwhelmingly, agriculture. Nutrient-laden runoff carrying fertilizers from farm fields and manure from animal operations fuel the outbreaks as warmer waters from climate change and heavy rain add to the mix.
Lake Erie is that latest example of “rights of nature” movement that seek to grant legal rights non-sentient or inanimate objects as they provide benefit to humans and ecosystems. Laws in Pennsylvania and other countries have been established, and building case law around the public trust doctrine might be one path forward in the United States, even if the path becomes rocky as advocates press forward.