In a first-of-its-kind law in the United States, voters in Toledo, Ohio, last week approved a measure granting the Lake Erie ecosystem full legal rights to “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” The new law is called the Lake Erie Bill of Rights Charter Amendment, and it grants not only the right to the lake to live a healthy life, for a lake, but empowers Toledo citizens to step in if the lake’s rights are violated. Ag and business interests spent a lot of money opposing the voting campaign, but Toledoans passed the measure with 61 percent support.

“We’ve been using the same laws for decades to try and protect Lake Erie,” said Toledoans for Safe Water activist Markie Miller. “They’re clearly not working. 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.”

That activist group was formed in response to algal blooms that have increased in frequency and intensity in recent years, rendering the city’s water supply dangerously unusable at times. During a particularly nasty bloom in 2014, all 276,000 residents of Toledo had to go an entire weekend without using their tap water. The blooms are sparked by increased runoff, mostly nitrogen and phosphorous, from agriculture developments that pump fertilizer into the water system.

 

2009 algal bloom in Lake Erie. Photo: Tom Archer/NASA.

Fishing, recreation, and tourism industries take major hits when Lake Erie spins up a toxic bloom, this new measure will help combat that.

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Climate change is expected to make these blooms worse too, but now, with the lake being granted the same basic rights as citizens, to a degree, the people of Toledo have a new weapon to protect a beloved and needed partner in their ecosystem.

“[This amendment is] about not only changing the law, but it’s about changing our culture and our relationship with nature and the environment,” Tish O’Dell of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund said in an interview.

At least one ag business group has filed a legal complaint against the measure, and with this being the first such law in the United States, it remains to be seen what the courts will do when faced with a challenge to the lake’s rights. But the Rights of Nature movement is beginning to flourish around the world, perhaps with enough momentum to spur more of these sorts of declarations across the country.