Group Files Suit to Recognize the Colorado River as a Person

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Corporations have rights ... why not rivers?

While the unenlightened might see it as a daft idea, others see it as making perfect sense. If corporations can have personhood and enjoy some of the rights that people do, why not a river? An important, life-giving, ancient waterway that is being abused to no end, at that.

While a new lawsuit based on the concept is probably not a sure bet to win, it raises an important question once again: Should natural entities be given legal rights?

Given their generally defenseless nature and their critical importance in the endurance of our species (not to mention their own longevity) the answer seems like an easy yes. Alas, given that securing personhood for nonhuman primates has been challenging enough, doing the same for a river or forest or mountain range may take a more evolved population of lawmakers.

Nonetheless, a Denver lawyer and a radical environmental group filed a suit this week asking a judge to recognize the Colorado River as a person. The attorneys are calling it a first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit, and should it prove successful, it could turn environmental law on its head. It would be glorious, allowing natural entities to sue over their abuses; pollution, depletion, you name it.

As Julie Turkewitz for The new York Times writes: "Future lawsuits in its mold might seek to block pipelines, golf courses or housing developments and force everyone from agriculture executives to mayors to rethink how they treat the environment." She reports:

"The suit was filed Monday in Federal District Court in Colorado by Jason Flores-Williams, a Denver lawyer. It names the river ecosystem as the plaintiff – citing no specific physical boundaries – and seeks to hold the state of Colorado and Gov. John Hickenlooper liable for violating the river’s 'right to exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve.'"

Since the courtroom can’t exactly accommodate the river, she (see what I did there?) is being represented by an ally of the waterway, Deep Green Resistance, the group that is filing the suit. The suit says that the state violated the river’s right to flourish by polluting and draining it and threatening endangered species, notes Turkewitz.

And indeed, the poor river has been subjected to no shortage of trauma. It’s been polluted prodigiously, numerous species have become or are becoming endangered, and the river itself is being depleted into near nothingness. To quote myself in a story about the decision to flood the Grand Canyon in 2015:

"The Colorado River should reach the sea, that’s what it wants to do. It wants to start in the Rocky Mountains and wind its way 1,450 miles along the Arizona-California border into the Mexican delta, irrigating farmland and nourishing loads of wildlife and flora along the way before emptying itself into the Gulf of California. That’s what it did up until 1998. But then, gradually, ouch."
"The mighty Colorado continues to take top honors in American Rivers' annual ranking of America’s most endangered rivers. The conservation groups notes, “A century of water management policies and practices that have promoted wasteful water use have put the river at a critical crossroads.” Demand on the river’s water simply exceeds its supply, to the point that it no longer reaches the sea. Instead, it dribbles into nothingness somewhere in the desert of the Southwest."

This girl needs some rights.

Of course, the lawsuit is drawing snickers and criticism from conservatives who think it is ridiculous. But that’s to be expected, and more awareness of the idea can only lead to more progressive thinking. To wit, back in the 1970s, Christopher Stone wrote a seminal article titled “Should Trees Have Standing?” ... and we’ve been slowly pushing the envelope ever since. And in fact, other places in the world have recognized rights for natural entities; as Turkewitz points out:

"In Ecuador, the constitution now declares that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.” In New Zealand, officials declared in March that a river used by the Maori tribe of Whanganui in the North Island to be a legal person that can sue if it is harmed. A court in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand has called the Ganges and its main tributary, the Yamuna, to be living human entities."

As for the river, Flores-Williams argues that giving non-human organisms the right to sue, would prod us to take care of the things we need for survival, or face penalties. “It’s not pie in the sky,” he said. “It’s pragmatic.”

It’s more than some new-age hippie-dippie thinking, it’s common sense; though common sense that seems lost on the people who exploit the planet’s resources. Snarky naysayers have mused about what would come next; would pebbles be allowed to sue the people who trod upon them? To which Flores-Williams replied, “Does every pebble in the world now have standing? Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous.”

“We’re not interested in preserving pebbles,” he said. “We’re interested in preserving the dynamic systems that exist in the ecosystem upon which we depend.”

Who could argue against that?