Lake Erie the Subject of Unusual Ballot Question

Residents of Toledo will vote on whether it deserves the same rights as a person
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 19, 2019 10:15 AM CST
Lake Erie the Subject of Unusual Ballot Question
In this Aug. 3, 2014, file photo, the water intake crib for the city of Toledo, Ohio, is surrounded by an algae bloom on Lake Erie, about 2.5 miles off the shore of Curtice, Ohio.   (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)

Next week, residents of Toledo, Ohio, will vote on what the New York Times describes as one of the most unusual ballot questions ever to appear in the US—whether to grant Lake Erie the same rights as a human. Specifically, residents will vote on whether to accept the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which would accord the lake the same protections as a person or a corporation. Backers say it's necessary to save the lake from pollution, while opponents, including local farmers, say it will prove to be too expensive. Details:

  • The vote: It takes place Feb. 26. The initiative declares that "Lake Erie, and the Lake Erie watershed, possess the right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve." If the measure passes, residents would be able to sue polluters to protect the lake.
  • The reason: As explains, the impetus came out of 2014, when Toledo couldn't use its water supply (drawn from the lake) for three days because of bacteria. "It's not just us going, 'In case something bad happens.' Something bad did happen," says organizer Markie Miller. Current environmental laws just aren't strong enough, backers say.

  • The precedent: Other US cities have undertaken similar initiatives, but never anything on this scale—this is "effectively giving personhood to a gigantic lake," per the Guardian. Indeed, Erie is the world's 11th largest lake, according to the Times. Worldwide, similar initiatives have been undertaken, including one to protect the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. "The drafters of the Lake Erie Bill of Rights in Toledo share this understanding, that existing environmental laws are simply not sufficient to protect and restore the lake," says one of the Australian organizers.
  • The complication: It goes back to Erie's size. The lake affects four states, other cities (including Buffalo and Cleveland), and even a province in Canada. So would someone in Toledo be able to sue a polluter in Cleveland? Yes, say the backers. But their big hope is that other municipalities pass similar ordinances.
  • Opponents: They've taken out attacks on local radio accusing out-of-state extremists of being behind the initiative, reports the Toledo Blade. Local organizers, including members of Toledoans for Safe Water, says that's absurd and offensive. Foes call the measure "reckless and legally dubious" and say it will threaten jobs.
(Read more Lake Erie stories.)

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