First-of-its-Kind Lawsuit Seeks Legal Rights for the Colorado River

Case could establish foothold for rights of nature in American courts, say activists

In the first-ever rights of nature lawsuit filed in federal court in the United States, the Colorado River seeks recognition as a “person” with rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve. Denver-based civil rights attorney Jason Flores-Williams, working with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), filed a complaint in the United States District Court, District of Colorado on Tuesday. Though the river itself is named as the plaintiff, five members of the international environmental justice organization Deep Green Resistance (DGR) serve “as next friend” plaintiffs to ensure the river’s interests are protected in court. (Full Disclosure: The author is one of the five “next friends.”)

photo of Colorado riverPhoto by Henrik JohanssonA lawsuit filed yesterday in federal court seeks legal personhood for the Colorado River.

The opening lines of the complaint declare, “Our system of law has failed to stop the degradation of the natural environment, and consequently, has failed to protect the natural and human communities which depend on it for their survival and livelihood.” To remedy this failure, and to give the Colorado River power to enforce its rights, the next friends contend that the Colorado River must be granted standing — the right to sue — in American courts. They also seek a declaration from the federal court that the state of Colorado, the defendant in the case, may be held liable for violating the rights of the river. A victory for the Colorado River would establish a foothold for the rights of nature in American courts and help even the playing field between the natural world and corporations, which already possess standing in the court system.

No ecosystem is more responsible for the facilitation of life — human and non-human — in the arid Southwest than the Colorado River. Climate change exacerbates droughts which deprive the river of water and many of the river’s tributaries have receded. Due to extensive damming, overallocation of the river’s water, and drought, the Colorado River rarely flows all the way to the sea.

DGR is active in water protection campaigns across the West and is committed to the principle that the soil, the air, the water, the climate, and the food we eat, are created by complex communities of living creatures like those creating the Colorado River. As Deanna Meyer, a DGR member and one of the “next friends” explains, “Without the recognition that the Colorado River possesses certain rights of its own, it will always be subject to wide scale exploitation without any real consequences. I’m proud to stand with the other “next friends” in this lawsuit to enforce and defend the rights of the Colorado, and we’re calling on groups across the country to do the same to protect the last remaining wild places in this country and beyond.”

If the court rules in favor of the river, the United States would join a growing movement around the world to enact jurisprudence that reflects the seriousness of ecological collapse. Courts and legislatures from South America to Asia have recognized that ecosystems themselves possess rights. In 2008, Ecuador amended its national constitution to establish the rights of ecosystems within the country to exist, regenerate, evolve, and be restored. Using these constitutional provisions, Ecuadorians have filed several enforcement cases protecting the rights of rivers and other ecosystems in the country.

In July 2014, Te Urewera, an 821-square mile forest area of New Zealand, was designated as a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person.” Te Urewera may now bring causes of action on its own behalf without having to prove direct injury to human beings. And in spring of this year, New Zealand’s Whanganui River gained legal “personhood status” under an agreement that states the river is no longer the property of the government but rather owns itself.

Colombia’s Constitutional Court, in November 2016, ruled that the Atrato River, including its tributaries and watershed, is “an entity subject to rights to protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration.” To enforce these rights, the Court ordered that the Colombian State shall “exercise legal guardianship and representation of the rights of the river in conjunction with the ethnic communities that inhabit the Atrato river basin.”

Most recently, in March, the High Court of Uttarakhand at Nainital, in the State of Uttarakhand in northern India, declared that the Ganges and Yumana Rivers are “legal/living persons.” This declaration followed numerous rulings by the court which found that while rivers are “central to the existence to half of the Indian population and their health and well-being,” they are severely polluted and their existence seriously threatened.

The next friends of the Colorado River will now wait for the case to be added to the court’s calendar while anticipating a strong response from the State of Colorado and corporations with interests in the river.

While water continues to be polluted, air is poisoned, climate change worsens, and the collapse of every major ecosystem on the continent intensifies, the environmental movement scrambles for effective tactics. Deep ecologists and ecopsychologists have long identified the objectification of nature as a root cause of the natural world’s destruction. The rights of nature legal framework provides environmentalists with a tool to change the American legal system’s treatment of nature as property and the Colorado River’s success could usher in a new, more hopeful era of environmental law.

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