Should Rivers Have Same Legal Rights As Humans? A Growing Number Of Voices Say Yes — National Public Radio

Satellite imagery of a toxic algal bloom on Lake Erie in 2011. The image is gorgeous, but microcystis aeruginosa, the green algae pictured here, is toxic to mammals.
NASA Earth Observatory via Popular Science.

From National Public Radio (Ashley Westerman):

In early July, Bangladesh became the first country to grant all of its rivers the same legal status as humans. From now on, its rivers will be treated as living entities in a court of law. The landmark ruling by the Bangladeshi Supreme Court is meant to protect the world’s largest delta from further degradation from pollution, illegal dredging and human intrusion…

Following the ruling, anyone accused of harming the rivers can be taken to court by the new, government-appointed National River Conservation Commission. They may be tried and delivered a verdict as if they had harmed their own mother, Matin says.

“The river is now considered by law, by code, a living entity, so you’ll have to face the consequence by law if you do anything that kills the river,” [Mohammad Abdul Matin] says.

What is environmental personhood?

Bangladesh follows a handful of countries that have subscribed to an idea known as environmental personhood. It was first highlighted in essays by University of Southern California law professor Christopher D. Stone, collected into a 1974 book titled Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Stone argued that if an environmental entity is given “legal personality,” it cannot be owned and has the right to appear in court.

Traditionally, nature has been subject to a Western-conceived legal regime of property-based ownership, says Monti Aguirre with the environmental group International Rivers.

“That means … an owner has the right to modify their features, their natural features, or to destroy them all at will,” Aguirre says.

The idea of environmental personhood turns that paradigm on its head by recognizing that nature has rights and that those rights should be enforced by a court of law. It’s a philosophical idea, says Aguirre, with indigenous communities leading the charge…

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to enshrine the legal rights of nature in its constitution. Bolivia passed a similar law in 2011. Meanwhile, New Zealand in 2017 became the first country to grant a specific river legal rights, followed by the Indian state of Uttarakhand. This year, the city of Toledo, Ohio, passed what is known as the Lake Erie Bill of Rights to protect its shores, making it one of several U.S. communities to have passed legislation recognizing the rights of nature

In a 2018 study co-authored with Julia Talbot-Jones, O’Donnell shows that the onus of enforcement will fall on whoever is deemed the guardian of the waterway. And that can be anyone from a court-appointed body to the government itself — which may have chosen not to participate in environmentally friendly practices in the past — to nongovernmental organizations.

In Ecuador, says O’Donnell, the Global Alliance for Rights of Nature and others sued a construction company trying to build a road across the Vilcabamba River and initially won in court.

But when the construction company didn’t comply with the court’s ruling, “the NGO could not afford to run a second case,” says O’Donnell.

What’s more, the trans-boundary nature of rivers makes enforcement inherently difficult. This issue has come up in India, where the high court in Uttarakhand state in 2017 recognized the Ganges and Yamuna rivers as legal persons because of their “sacred and revered” status. The court named the state government as their guardians.

Soon after, the state government appealed to the Indian Supreme Court, arguing “that their responsibilities as guardians of the rivers were unclear because the rivers extended well beyond the border of Uttarakhand,” says O’Donnell…

he struggle to achieve this paradigm shift is also taking place on the shores of Lake Erie, in Toledo, Ohio. Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance that would allow the its citizens to sue on behalf of the lake, arguing that it had gotten so polluted, there was no choice.

The ordinance’s constitutionality was immediately challenged by a farm in a federal lawsuit. The farm argued the ordinance made it vulnerable “to massive liability” when it fertilizes its fields “because it can never guarantee that all runoff will be prevented from entering the Lake Erie watershed.” Then the state of Ohio joined that lawsuit, arguing it — not the citizens of Toledo — has the “legal responsibility” for environmental regulatory programs.

“What’s interesting is the state of Ohio intervening on behalf of the polluter, not on behalf of the people who passed the law,” says Tish O’Dell, the Ohio community organizer for the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

The lawsuit is ongoing, though O’Dell predicts the ordinance will ultimately be overturned.

“But what I would say to people is it doesn’t matter what happens in the courts in Toledo with this case, because the genie has been let out of the bottle. And as hard as they want to try to put it back in, the people shouldn’t let them,” O’Dell says. “I mean, we have to change our environmental protection in this country and across the world, because obviously what we’re doing isn’t working.”

Say hello to BoulderRightsOfNature.org

Click here to go to the website:

About Rights of Nature
Only 20% of the world’s wild ecosystems (biotic communities) remain intact and undisturbed.
More than 95% of U.S. land in the lower 48 has been modified.
The wild population of vertebrates worldwide is down 60% from 50 years ago.
According to the national Audubon Society, nearly half of North American bird species are at risk of losing habitats by 2080 due to climate change.
The world loses a species about every ten minutes …
E.O. Wilson has predicted that 25% wild species will survive to the year 2100.

Rights of Nature is an integral piece of the current conservation movement. The concept has taken off around the world since Ecuador recognized Nature’s rights in its constitution in 2008. Yet in most places in the United States Nature is still treated as property: legally it is a commodity.

From The Longmont Times-Call (John Spina):

Boulder Rights of Nature, a group of citizen activists lobbying for legal rights for the environment, is hosting the first symposium on rights of nature in Boulder County on Saturday at the Lafayette Public Library.

Running from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the free symposium was created to gauge the community’s interest in the issue and gather public feedback on a resolution Boulder Rights of Nature is currently formulating to protect the Boulder Creek watershed.

“The symposium offers an exciting opportunity for the community in Boulder Country to learn about the rights of nature movement and consider how it can protect our own precious ecosystems,” Grant Wilson, vice president of Boulder Rights of Nature and Directing Attorney at the environmental group Earth Law Center, said in a statement. “With the global environment trending towards collapse, we must consider new frameworks of governance that are protective of nature, including in Boulder.”

Several communities around the world have already begun this process, including Santa Monica, California, where Marsha Jones Moutrie, one of Saturday’s symposium speakers, helped lead the Santa Monica’s Rights of Nature Ordinance as city attorney from 1994 through 2016.

Like many Westerners, giant sequoias came recently from farther east. Of course, “recent” is a relative term. “You’re talking millions of years (ago),” William Libby said. The retired University of California, Berkeley, plant geneticist has been studying the West Coast’s towering trees for more than half a century. Needing cooler, wetter climates, the tree species arrived at their current locations some 4,500 years ago — about two generations. “They left behind all kinds of Eastern species that did not make it with them, and encountered all kinds of new things in their environment,” Libby said. Today, sequoias grow on the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada.

More Than #ClimateChange Threatens Iconic Rio Grande — Wild Earth Guardians

Here’s the release from Wild Earth Guardians (Jen Pelz):

As temperatures in Albuquerque climb to triple digits, the Rio Grande’s flows continue to recede leaving vast islands and sandy channels where the mighty river once roamed. The contrast between conditions this year and last year is stark.

In 2017, the April forecast for the Rio Grande at the Otowi Gauge was 128 percent of average; this year it is 20. The U.S. Drought Monitor’s maps by Brian Fuchs show New Mexico going from only about a quarter of the state in abnormally or moderately dry conditions in June of 2017 to the majority of the state in extreme or exceptional drought this year.

West Drought Monitor September 25, 2018.

These conditions are driving the early low flows in the Basin, but are not the sole cause of the crisis as seems to be the nationwide narrative.

“Climate change is exposing cracks in western water policy and is shining a spotlight on the unsustainable allocation of water from our rivers and streams,” said Jen Pelz, Rio Grande Waterkeeper and Wild Rivers Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “The emerging disaster on the Rio Grande this year comes from archaic water policies, lack of accountability by the states, and water managers acting like its business as usual despite the dire stream flow conditions.”

Three main flaws in water policy and enforcement are driving the situation this year. First, the Rio Grande Compact—an agreement between Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas that sought in 1938 to equitably allocate the waters of the Rio Grande between the states–is operating in dry years to magnify the climate changed induced flow declines. When flows are above average (128 percent), like in 2017, Colorado’s delivery obligations to downstream states roughly mimic the flows at the index gauge.

However, when flows cease to reach a threshold of about 4,000 cubic feet per second, the delivery obligation of Colorado ceases entirely meaning Colorado water users can take every last drop and be entirely within the terms of the compact.

The Rio Grande Compact, like other western water agreements, is based on data from an unrepresentative wet period in the historical record; therefore, the allocation system is far from equitable.

Second, the State of New Mexico provides no leadership or accountability to ensure water users in the state are only using what they need. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, for example, requested a permit in 1925 to irrigate over 100,000 acres in the Middle Rio Grande valley from Cochiti Dam to Elephant Butte Dam. The District, however, has not (90 years later) ever proven that it has irrigated the acreage contemplated in the permit, nor that it needs the water it has claimed. This is a fundamental requirement under the New Mexico Constitution that is being blatantly disregarded.

Finally, the District—the entity that delivers water to farmers in the Middle Rio Grande—just last week finally limited its diversions to the more senior users. Despite anticipated flows of 20 percent of average, the District provided water to the most junior users—those that do not have any claim to water—from March 1 to June 12 (104 days).

“These institutional agreements and policies not only threaten the health of the river, but also put the most senior users’ ability to irrigate to the end of the season at risk,” added Pelz. “The wild west days are over and climate change is exposing these flawed choices. It’s time to find a new sustainable path forward.”

WildEarth Guardians works to protect and restore the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West. Our Rio Grande: America’s Great River campaign seeks to provide the Rio Grande with a right to its own water and to reform western water policy for a sustainable future for this icon.

#ColoradoRiver ‘personhood’ case pulled by proponents — @AspenJournalism #COriver

Rodeo Rapid, on the upper Colorado River. A federal judge has dismissed a case seeking personhood rights for the river, after the plaintiffs’ attorney agreed with the state of Colorado that he should pull the lawsuit. Photo credit: Brent Gardner-Smith Aspen Journalism

From The Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Lindsay Fendt):

A novel case seeking personhood for the Colorado River will not proceed in federal court after the plaintiffs filed a motion Sunday to dismiss their own lawsuit and a judge on Monday granted the motion and dismissed the case.

The case, filed against the state of Colorado, would have been the first federal lawsuit seeking to establish legal rights for nature in the United States.

“The undersigned continues to believe that the [rights of nature] doctrine provides American courts with a pragmatic and workable tool for addressing environmental degradation and the current issues facing the Colorado River,” reads the motion to voluntarily dismiss the case from attorney Jason Flores-Williams. “That said, the expansion of rights is a difficult and legally complex matter.”

Flores-Williams opted to pull the complaint in part due to possible sanctions threatened by the Colorado attorney general’s office if he continued with the case in U.S. District Court in Denver.

“Situations change,” Flores-Williams said speaking Monday after withdrawing the case, “and what is best for the rights of nature movement is not to get involved in a lengthy sanctions battle, but to move forward with seeking environmental justice.”

According to a letter sent Nov. 16 by Scott Steinbrecher, a senior assistant attorney general for Colorado, the state was considering seeking sanctions against Flores-Williams under Rule 11 of the federal rules of civil procedure, which allows U.S. District Courts to punish lawyers for pleadings with improper purpose or frivolous arguments. The rule allows punishments ranging from censure to disbarment and the sanctions typically carry hefty fines.

“The purpose of this letter is to request that you consider voluntarily dismissing with prejudice the amended complaint,” Steinbrecher wrote to Flores-Williams on Nov. 16. “If you choose not to voluntarily withdraw your amended complaint with prejudice … you are hereby on notice that the defendant will pursue all sanctions and remedies available … .”

Flores-Williams filed his own voluntary motion to dismiss on Sunday, two days after he gathered with rights of nature activists outside the federal courthouse in downtown Denver. The group passed around a bowl of water from the Colorado River and played music affirming their commitment to creating a legal right to nature in U.S. courts.

The filing by Flores-Williams was titled an “unopposed motion to dismiss amended complaint with prejudice.” And in the process of agreeing to dismiss his own case, Flores-Williams summarized the situation as he saw it.

“The complaint represented a good faith attempt to introduce the rights of nature doctrine to our jurisprudence,” he wrote. “The rights of nature — specifically, the legal standing of natural entities — was first recognized by the Honorable William O. Douglas in his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton and is being increasingly utilized as a legal doctrine by countries around the world.”

On the other hand, Flores-Williams also told the court that, “when engaged in an effort of first impression, the undersigned has a heightened ethical duty to continuously ensure that conditions are appropriate for our judicial institution to best consider the merits of a new canon. After respectful conferral with opposing counsel per (state law) plaintiff respectfully moves this honorable court to dismiss the amended complaint with prejudice.”

The case was filed on Sept. 25 and was titled “The Colorado River Ecosystem a/n/f (and next friends) Deep Green Resistance, the Southwest Coalition, Deanna Meyer, Jennifer Murnan, Fred Gibson, Susan Hyatt, Will Falk v. State of Colorado.”

The next day, the New York Times ran an article about the lawsuit with the headline “Corporations Have Rights. Why Shouldn’t Rivers?”

The state filed a motion to dismiss the case on Oct. 17.

Flores-Williams then filed an amended complaint, on Nov. 3, that also named Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper as a defendant and added two new plaintiffs, both from Moab, Utah: Owen Lammers, as Living Rivers’ executive director, and John Weisheit, as the “Colorado Riverkeeper.”

The attorney general’s office then sent its letter to Flores-Williams on Nov. 16, to which he responded, with a defiant tone, on Nov. 28.

On Dec. 1 the state filed a second motion to dismiss the case, and then on Dec. 3, Flores-Williams took the step to pull the lawsuit.

Judge Nina Wang issued a court order Monday granting the motion to dismiss.

“When it comes to these big ideas no one owns them,” Flores-Williams said Monday. “There is movement on the ground now, and as long as that is there it will make its way into the courts.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on coverage of rivers and water with Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. More at http://www.aspenjournalism.org.

State files again to dismiss Colorado River ‘personhood’ lawsuit, threatens to sanction lawyer

Protesters advocating for “personhood” rights for the Colorado River cast the words, via a projector, “Colorado River Rights of Nature” onto a building in Denver on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.

By Lindsay Fendt, Aspen Journalism

DENVER — Protesters spurred on by the environmental group Deep Green Resistance gathered at dusk in front of the Alfred A. Arraj Courthouse in downtown Denver Friday. High above their heads, the words “Colorado River Rights of Nature” loomed, lit by a spotlight projector placed outside the protester circle.

The activists had come in support of a first-of-its-kind lawsuit in the United States, the Colorado River Ecosystem v. the State of Colorado, which seeks to grant direct rights to nature in the U.S. If successful, the case would allow anyone to file a lawsuit on behalf of the Colorado River ecosystem, including all the river’s tributaries.

And even as the protesters gathered on Friday, the attorney general’s office filed a second motion with the federal court to dismiss the lawsuit. A Dec. 1 deadline to do so had been set by the court in response to an amended complaint filed by the plaintiffs on Nov. 6.

But Friday’s protest was in response to a Nov. 16 letter sent by the Colorado attorney general’s office. The state’s attorneys threatened that if the plaintiffs did not withdraw the case they would file sanctions against Jason Flores-Williams, the lawyer representing the Colorado River and its “next friends” — members of Deep Green Resistance and others that have been appointed to represent the river’s interests.

Sanctions could range from censure to disbarment and could bill Flores-Williams for the hours incurred by the attorney general’s office while managing the case.

Responding to an interview request, the attorney general’s office declined to comment on its letter threatening sanctions.

Jason Flores-Williams, the lawyer representing “The Colorado River Ecosystem,” speaks to protesters outside the Alfred A. Arraj Courthouse in downtown Denver on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017.

Intimidation?

On Friday, standing before the crowd in a blue plaid suit and a backwards baseball cap, Flores-Williams reaffirmed that he would go forward with the case despite the sanctions at stake.

“They thought that by trying to intimidate me they would intimidate the rights of nature movement, instead it is going to invigorate it,” Flores-Williams said in a previous interview.

On Nov. 28, Flores-Williams had responded to the attorney general’s office with an open letter.

“Lacking actual legal grounds, the attorney general’s letter can only be understood as an attempt to harass me and silence the rights of nature movement,” said Flores-Williams’ response.

The pursuit of sanctions is a severe and rarely used tactic that courts will use to punish a lawyer for bringing a case with no real standing, and while Flores-Williams has rebutted claims that the case is frivolous, there is confusion over what exactly the plaintiffs are asking for in the lawsuit.

“They are not making any claims, this is more of a political statement,” said Mark Squillace, a law professor at the University of Colorado specializing in water law and natural resources. “[Sanctions are] extreme, but I do think it makes some sense in this case. If you are deliberately using the court to try to make a political statement and you don’t have a legal basis for the claim you’re making, the court can come down hard.”

Flores-Williams and the environmental groups aligned with him have made no secret about their intentions to build a movement around their case. Though this lawsuit looks only at the Colorado River ecosystem, its underlying implication is that nature should have rights in the same way people — and often corporations — do under U.S. law.

But the state’s second motion to dismiss argues again that the lawsuit filed by Flores-Williams violates the Eleventh Amendment, which bars private citizens from suing states in federal court. The state also says neither the Colorado River ecosystem or the “next friends” listed in the lawsuit hold legal standing.

“[The amended complaint] asks the court to transfer sovereign authority over the state’s public natural resources and bestow control on a handful of “next friends,” the state’s motion to dismiss said. “The amended complaint, however, is not based in law. Rather, its arguments are based in rhetoric that fails to establish this court’s jurisdiction or to present a valid legal argument to support its claims.”

Protesters carry signs outside the Alfred A. Arraj Courthouse in downtown Denver on Dec. 1, 2017, during a rally supporting a case to give the Colorado River personhood.

Rights of rivers?

The idea of rights of nature dates back to at least 1972, when lawyer Christopher Stone published the article “Should Trees Have Standing?” in Southern California Law Review.

The article caught the eye of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and that same year he heard the case Sierra Club v. Morton, where the Sierra Club sought to block the construction of a ski resort in California.

The court ruled that because the Sierra Club did not allege a specific injury that the ski resort presented to the club, that it lacked legal standing. But in a dissenting opinion Douglas asserted that nature itself should have standing.

“The ordinary corporation is a ‘person’ for purposes of the adjudicatory processes, whether it represents proprietary, spiritual, aesthetic, or charitable causes,” Douglas wrote. “So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life.”

Legal efforts to establish rights of nature have made some headway in some states, but Colorado courts have continuously struck them down.

“Colorado is maybe the worst of the western states to have this conversation because in some respects we are further behind than everybody,” said Doug Kenney, the director of the Western Water Policy Program at the University of Colorado.

In Colorado, this type of legal thinking is particularly sensitive with water resources due to the state’s complex and deeply entrenched system of water rights.

“It would certainly upturn the whole water rights system and drop a whole foreign concept into how we determine who gets water in the state, which our whole economy is based on,” said Doug Kemper, the executive director of the Colorado Water Congress, a lobbying organization for the water industry. “The constitution is clear that the water belongs to the people and that is what we believe.”

Many legal experts believe the rights-of-nature case has little chance of going forward, but it does come at a pivotal moment for the future of managing the Colorado River.

“The states are all getting along with each other right now and they are making these little incremental changes,” Kenney said. “On one hand it’s a huge success story and on the other hand it’s one of those issues where, do you solve the issue with incremental reforms or do you need some sort of fundamental leap forward? Kind of like this lawsuit.”

Editor’s note:
Aspen Journalism is collaborating with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News on coverage of rivers and water. The Post Independent published this story on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017.

#Colorado AG warns #ColoradoRiver “Rights of Nature” lawsuit attorney about possible sanctions #COriver

Colorado National Monument from the Colorado River Trail near Fruita September 2014

From The Courhouse News Service:

A Denver attorney representing the Colorado River Ecosystem in a bid for “personhood” is facing possible sanctions for refusing to drop the case…

In September this year, Flores-Williams sued Colorado on behalf of the environmental group Deep Green Resistance, asking that the Colorado River ecosystem be granted personhood in the same way a ship, an ecclesiastic corporation or a commercial corporation have it for purposes of constitutional protection and enforcement.

An assistant attorney general warned Flores-Williams in a Nov. 16 letter that if he did not voluntarily request dismissal with prejudice, he could face sanctions under Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for knowingly presenting false or unwarranted claims to the court.

The letter from Colorado’s Senior Assistant Attorney General Scott Steinbrecher said that Flores-Williams’s amended complaint “fails to disclose law contrary to your position that Eleventh Amendment immunity does not apply,” and that it “fails to address the numerous other deficiencies identified in the State’s Motion to Dismiss.”

It adds: “If you choose not to voluntarily withdraw your Amended Complaint with prejudice by close of business November 30, 2017, you are hereby on notice that the defendant will pursue all sanctions and remedies available under Fed R. Civ. P. 11.”

On Tuesday, Flores-Williams released an open letter to the Attorney General’s Office, stating: “The Amended Complaint will not be withdrawn. Legally, it should not be. Morally, it cannot be.”

[…]

Flores-Williams’ 4-page letter chides Steinbrecher for his threat of sanctions.

“The Attorney General’s mandate is to protect and serve the rights of the people of this State, of which the undersigned is an engaged citizen, not to use those vested powers to intimidate and forcibly chill those with whom it does not agree,” Flores-Williams wrote.

In a statement accompanying the open letter, Flores-Williams said: “They didn’t threaten to sanction Exxon attorneys for lying about global warming, nor Bank of America attorneys for fraudulently foreclosing on people’s homes, nor Nestle attorneys for privatizing our water and selling it back to us — but attempt to equal the playing field between corporations and the environment and they try to personally damage you. It’s the playbook.”

Supporters seeking rights for Colorado River meet in Denver, amend complaint

The Colorado River in Cataract Canyon.

By Lindsay Fendt, Aspen Journalism

DENVER — Beneath the dim red glow of string lights at the Mercury Cafe in downtown Denver, about 25 people gathered Tuesday afternoon to rally support for a lawsuit against the state on behalf of the Colorado River.

The case, the first of its kind in the United States, has the potential to shift American environmental law by granting nature a legal standing. The suit lists “the Colorado River Ecosystem” as the plaintiff along with people who hope to serve as “next friends” for the river and represent its interests in court.

Five potential next friends were named in the original complaint — Deanna Meyer, Jennifer Murnan, Fred Gibson, Susan Hyatt and Will Falk — all members of the environmental group Deep Green Resistance, which states its goal is to “deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet.”

In an amended complaint, filed on Nov. 6, two more “next friends” were added to the case.

Owen Lammers of Moab is the executive director of Living Rivers, “which empowers a movement to realize social-ecological balance within the Colorado River watershed,” the amended complaint states. Living Rivers is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to clean water founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

“Because of Mr. Lammer’s significant relationship with, and dedication to, the Colorado River ecosystem, he is qualified to serve as next friend,” the amended complaint states.

This is a change from the original complaint, which did not cite any particular relationship between the Colorado River and the members of Deep Green Resistance.

Also added to the case was John Weisheit, who is “the person designated as the on-the-water ‘keeper’ per the Waterkeeper Alliance policies. In other words, Mr. Weissheit is the ‘Colorado Riverkeeper,'” the amended complaint states.

Weisheit, 63, “has enjoyed the Colorado River and its tributaries since childhood,” the complaint says. A resident of Moab, he’s been a river guide since 1980 and “continues to lead river trips that support scientific research and public education, in fulfillment of Colorado Riverkeeper’s mission statement.”

Weisheit is also a co-author of the 2004 book “Cataract Canyon, a human and environmental history of the rivers in Canyonlands,” which is a detailed 268-page guide to the “center of the universe.”

Jason Flores-Williams, the lawyer representing members of Deep Green Resistance in Colorado River Ecosystem v State of Colorado, speaks at a rights-for-nature meeting at the Mercury Cafe in Denver on Nov. 14, 2017. The state has moved to dismiss the lawsuit, and is expected to do so again in response to a recently amended complaint filed by Flores-Williams.

Signs of protest

Though the novel case is seeking personhood for the Colorado River ecosystem, the suit’s proponents hope to use it as a launching pad for a broader rights-of-nature movement.

“For you or I to defend a river in court right now we have to show how injury to the river injured us,” said Mari Margil, the associate director for the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a rights-for-nature legal group and a legal adviser on the Colorado River case. “There is a growing understanding that our environmental laws are starting in the wrong place.”

Rather than maneuvering within existing environmental law, where nature is considered property, rights-of-nature lawsuits seek to give the natural world rights to exist beyond its use to humanity.

Margil and other rights-of-nature proponents say that our current environmental legal framework — which is based on legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act — does not go far enough. They point to past court decisions that have granted legal rights to corporations, like the 2010 Citizens United case, and say nature should have that same standing.

“I’ve long acknowledged that what we are doing in the environmental movement has not created change,” Meyer, one of the potential next friends in the lawsuit, said in a recent interview. “We see every biotic system on the planet in decline and nothing has gotten better. Until the river has rights, I don’t see any change happening in the way it is being used and exploited.”

At the meeting in the café in Denver on Tuesday, activists supporting the lawsuit propped up poster boards that said “The Colorado River runs through us” and “Legal standing for the Colorado River,” that were made for a courthouse rally held earlier that morning. They kicked off their meeting with a slow chant praising “sacred Colorado waters” before sitting down to strategize about building support around the lawsuit.

The group is planning protests, awareness campaigns and other rights-of-nature lawsuits in an effort to open up the courts for cases defending ecosystems from environmental ills.

“The court isn’t going to just give us anything,” Jason Flores-Williams, the Denver-based lawyer representing Deep Green Resistance and the potential next friends in the lawsuit, said at the meeting. “How we won’t lose is not based on whatever will happen inside the courtroom, but what happens outside of it.”

So far, the case has moved forward only a couple of short steps. Flores-Williams filed the case on Sept. 25, which the state followed with a motion to dismiss on Oct. 17 on the grounds that the case does not fall under federal jurisdiction and lacked specific injuries attributable to the state.

“The complaint alleges hypothetical future injuries that are neither fairly traceable to actions of the state of Colorado, nor redressable by a declaration that the ecosystem is a ‘person’ capable of possessing rights,” reads the motion to dismiss, which was filed by the Colorado attorney general’s office.

The plaintiffs were then allowed to amend their complaint, and on Nov. 6 Flores-Williams filed a new complaint, invoking rights under the U.S. Constitution in order to keep the case in federal court.

The map of the Colorado River basin included in the amended complaint filed on behalf of the Colorado River ecosystem by members of Deep Green Resistance and other next friends. The map understates the contribution of the Green River to the Colorado River system.

246,000 square miles

Flores-Williams used the opportunity clarify aspects of the original complaint. For example he added that the Colorado River has the right to “be restored” in addition to the right “to exist, flourish, regenerate, [and] naturally evolve.”

He also defined the scope of the plaintiff in the case, the “Colorado River Ecosystem,” saying it “encompasses the area bound by the highpoints and ridgelines where drop-by-drop and grain-by-grain, water, sediment, and dissolved materials ebb their way toward the Gulf of California: some 246,000 square miles (640,000 km2) in southwest North America including portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California in the United States, and portions of Baja California and Sonora in Mexico.”

The amended complaint states that the Colorado River ecosystem includes the river’s “major tributaries” and “all the creeks, streams, and tributaries that feed them, along with the surrounding landscape where water percolates and flows underground,” and it includes a map of the entire Colorado River basin.

It also cites the native endangered fish species that are struggling to survive in the Colorado River basin and says the Endangered Species Act “has failed to reverse the pace of biodiversity degradation.”

In terms of the connection between the river ecosystem and those who wish to be seen as “next friends” by the court, the amended complaint claims that “as the human part of the Colorado River ecosystem, next friends and guardians are capable of speaking through words on behalf of the natural communities that comprise the Colorado River ecosystem.”

The amended complaint also elaborates on the idea of personhood for the river, noting “the recognition of the Colorado River ecosystem as a ‘person’ is far less of a stretch than bestowing upon inanimate corporations the status of personhood.'”

And the amended complaint argues that by lack of such recognition the river’s rights are being denied under the due process and equal protection provisions in the U.S. Constitution.

On thing the amended complaint did not do is correct claims in the original complaint that the state of Colorado operates a number of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River system that are, in fact, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation or other water-management organizations, including Blue Mesa Reservoir on the Gunnison and Green Mountain Reservoir on the Blue River, both tributaries of the Colorado River.

Will Falk,a member of Deep Green Resistance, speaking at the Mercury Cafe in Denver on Nov. 14, 2017. Falk is one of the named plaintiffs in Colorado River Ecosystem v State of Colorado, and has recently been traveling along portions of the Colorado River.

Beyond the law

The courthouse rally and the following rights-of-nature meeting were originally scheduled around a status conference slated for Tuesday, but the court vacated the hearing and gave the state until Dec. 1 to respond to the amended complaint. Flores-Williams expects the state will again move to dismiss the case.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the case’s plaintiffs plan to keep fighting against what they see as exploitation on the Colorado River and hope to inspire others to file rights-of-nature cases.

“Our case by itself is not going to transform the American legal system,” Falk, a potential “next friend” in the case said in an interview. “People who care about the environment need to realize that one court case is not going to be a quick fix for a system that has a tradition of exploiting the natural world.”

The amended complaint notes that Falk “recently traveled the waters of the Colorado River.”

“To support the idea that the Colorado River needs rights, I wanted to go see firsthand the problems along the river,” Falk said in a recent interview.

Grand River Ditch July 2016. Photo credit Greg Hobbs.

“It started a couple weeks ago when we went up to La Poudre pass north of Rocky Mountain National Park to see the headwaters of the river,” Falk said. “And you don’t really find a whole lot of natural or wild water. What you find is the Grand Ditch, which is a ditch build in the 1880s that is still carrying water across the Continental Divide and over the Rocky Mountains and to the Front Range. From the very beginning, the river is being exploited. The water is taken from her birthing grounds. From the moments she begins to flow she is being stolen.”

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is covering rivers and waters in collaboration with the Glenwood Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily and the Summit Daily News. The Post Independent published a shorter version of the story on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.