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Does a lake have rights?

On Saturday, August 2nd, 2014, the residents of Toledo, Ohio woke up to a warning that no one wants to hear: do not drink the water. Toledo sits on the banks of Lake Erie, the drinking water source for over 11 million people in the area. In the days prior, the clear lake had turned yellowish-green. City officials issued the order after lake water tested positive for microcystin, a toxin produced during algal bloom. The officials believed the bloom was caused by agricultural runoff from nearby farms.

No clean drinking water

For three days, people relied on bottled water. During that time, they couldn’t drink the tap water, use it to cook, or use it to brush their teeth. A resident, Randy Nissen, told the New York Times, “I’m worried that when the water comes back on, everything will go back to the status quo, and no one will address the problems that caused this.”

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights

Nissen was not alone in his fears. Following the water crisis, people formed advocacy groups, including Toledoans for Safe Water, to protect Lake Erie in the future. Together they created the Lake Erie Bill of Rights (LEBOR). It declares that the lake has the right to “exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.” If businesses or people are caught violating this right, they can be sued on behalf of the lake.

The voters speak

In late 2018, the Lucas County Board of Elections approved a special election for voters to decide whether or not Lake Erie should be granted its own Bill of Rights. On February 26th, 2019, the people of Toledo passed the measure. As a result, Lake Erie now has legal rights similar to human beings.

Not so fast

The day after voters approved the LEBOR, Mark Dewes, a local farmer, filed a lawsuit to contest its constitutionality. The Ohio Farm Bureau came out in support of Mr. Dewes, stating that the initiative disrupts “federal constitutional rights, including equal protection freedom of speech.” The suit also aims to prevent the measure from going into effect. Community groups have vowed to keep fighting, and this issue is sure to remain in the news.

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