The grass-roots organization Toledoans for Safe Water campaigned for the adoption of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights. Photo courtesy of Toledoans for Safe Water
Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Voters in Toledo, Ohio, have become the first in the nation to grant a lake the same rights as a human being.
The Lake Erie Bill of Rights passed a special election vote Tuesday, giving the fourth largest of the Great Lakes "the right to exist, flourish and naturally evolve."
The new law gives citizens of Toledo the right to sue any other person, farm or corporation violating the lake's rights -- such as a company, farm or government municipality that is polluting the lake.
By Wednesday morning, a nearby farm had filed suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the new law. The Drewes Farms Partnership claimed the bill puts its family farm at risk, creating liability if any fertilizer runoff from their farm enters Lake Erie.
The push to grant Lake Erie such rights began shortly after the Toledo Water Crisis in August 2014. At that time, toxic algae blooms in the lake, caused mainly by chemical fertilizer runoff from area farms, became so thick that Toledo's drinking water was unsafe. Neither boiling nor filtering would make the water safe, the city said.
The governor declared a state of emergency for the area. Businesses shut, hospitals rerouted patients and people scrambled to find bottled water.
"I was in labor during the water crisis," said Crystal Jankowski, one of the organizers of the Toledoans for Safe Water initiative, which pushed for the passage of the bill. "There was huge paranoia, I wasn't even allowed to touch the water. I don't want my kids to have to do what I'm doing now."
The bill of rights offers a new legal framework for Toledoans to ensure their lake is safe, Jankowski said.
"We've had enough," she said. "We're going to make you follow the rules."
Opponents of the bill say it needlessly puts nearby farms and small businesses in danger of bankruptcy.
"Nothing is spelled out as to what constitutes harm," said Joe Cornely, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau. "This allows any citizen who feels a business, citizen or farm is harming the lake to sue. Farmers will have the constant threat of a lawsuit and financial penalties."
The lawsuit filed by the Drewes Farm alleges that the bill "exposes Drewes Farms to massive liability if Drewes Farms continues to fertilize its fields because it can never guarantee that all runoff will be prevented from entering the Lake Erie watershed. If Drewes Farms cannot fertilize its fields, it will be unable to survive economically. Drewes Farms soon must begin fertilizing its fields in March or April for this growing season."
That farm already is working to address chemical runoff from their fields, the suit alleges. Other farms are, as well, Cornely said.
Since the 2014 water crisis, the farming community has spent millions researching ways to reduce chemical fertilizer runoff, Cornely said. Research farms were established to determine best farming practices.
Those farms have devised several techniques that help. One is to plant cover crops, which are plants that grow in the field either over the winter or year-round. The roots from those plants help keep the soil in place, stopping the dirt and chemicals from being washed off the fields and into Lake Erie.
Cornely said he's not sure how many farmers are using cover crops -- or any of the other methods found to reduce runoff.
"There is a narrative that if we stop nutrients running off from the fields then Lake Erie will clean up," Cornely said. "And that is correct. But there is no magic bullet for stopping nutrients from running off fields. And as long as the way you describe a win is a quick fix, you're never going to win."