This lake now has legal rights, just like you


In the summer of 2014, a giant
algae bloom took over Lake Erie. It was so big, you could see it from space. This algae contained a toxin that
could cause vomiting and liver damage. “Leaving over half a million
people with no safe drinking water.” “Residents have been served notice:
stop drinking water. Don’t shower.
And don’t let pets come near tap water.” A few days later… “Hundreds of thousands of people in Ohio are
breathing a sigh of relief today. The mayor of Toledo announced today the
city’s water is now safe to drink.” “It seemed like, oh don’t worry,
we we got over that, the water is safe, we’re gonna show video of people
drinking tap water just to put you at ease.” “Here you go, right from the tap… And again: The blooms weren’t toxic enough to affect the drinking water, but they kept
coming back. That made me really angry, that we’ve just been kind of allowing
this problem to go on, we’ve been watching this ecosystem suffer. Why
haven’t we taken action until now? In February 2019, the citizens of Toledo
voted to try something unprecedented. “Breaking news tonight, the results are in.” “The Lake Erie Bill of Rights has passed by a wide margin.” “Lake Erie has earned some of the same legal rights as humans.” “The same rights, as a human being.
It happened.” If you fly over this area west of Lake Erie, you’ll
see mostly corn and soybean fields, but that wasn’t always the case. Up until the
late 1800s it was known as the Great Black Swamp, it was muddy and mosquito
infested. Indigenous communities had always just left it alone, but when European settlers arrived, they had other ideas. They thought “oh wow look at all this
great ground we have here.” We need to conquer this land. They drained the swamp. First they dug trenches around the fields to siphon off the water, but the
soil beneath was still too wet to grow crops, so they added these underground
tubes with holes in the top. Water from the swampy soil traveled through the
tubes into the ditches, where it flowed into creeks and rivers and eventually
Lake Erie. The soil could support crops and livestock, which is why we need to
talk about cow shit. Each cow in a herd needs an acre of grass. That’s nearly a
football field. So these early farms tended to have small herds on huge
swaths of land. The whole idea is to sort of emulate the bison in olden days. They didn’t have to do anything with the waste. It slowly fertilized the soil and
grew more grass. In the mid 20th century that started to change. Economists came
up with a notion that if we got a lot of animals together, then they could grow
livestock in a very rapid manner. The equation had flipped — instead of a small
herd of cows spread out over a large area, today thousands of cows share a
very small space. The same is true for pigs and chickens. These operations are
known as centralized animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. It was efficient
and meat got cheap, but this new way of raising animals created a problem: What
to do with all that waste? It’s normally stored in large, what are
called lagoons. The waste is mixed with water and eventually these lagoons fill
up, so the CAFOs will have it hauled and spread out over nearby corn and soybean
fields. Unlike solid manure, nutrients from this
liquid mixture can travel quickly through those same tubes that keep the
soil dry and into the waterways that eventually feed Lake Erie, where the
phosphorus from the manure combines with warm shallow water, to create an ideal
home for toxic algae. There are nearly 150 centralized animal feeding
operations in the Western Lake Erie Basin. Each year, they produce nearly 700
million gallons of manure. Nearly 20% of it originates here, in southern Michigan. This is the Hudson dairy CAFO right here. 3,500 cows puts out the manure equivalent
of 70,000 people every day. Pam Taylor is a retired math teacher. She showed me what happens when these giant manure lagoons get filled up. Watch watch watch! And so that’s liquid manure coming out of there? Yes. Several times a year, Pam goes
out and tests the water near these fields. Today we’re looking for orthophosphate, the main culprit in Lake Erie’s recurring toxic algae blooms. This already does not look good to me. Anything above 0.005 parts per million
can trigger a toxic algae bloom. “And we’re already at five.”
“At least.” The Maumee River is the main tributary to Lake Erie. It’s where all these other
creeks eventually end up. The orthophosphate levels in the Maumee River
have been rising steadily since the mid-1990s and algae blooms have become the
new normal. “Residents in Toledo, Ohio are facing another day without tap water.
They were ordered to stay away from the water over the weekend after tests
showed it was toxic.” It was definitely something that made you just kind of sit
back and think this isn’t right. As a mom, I have to do something. I think there
were maybe five or six of us at the very very beginning putting pressure on those
agencies that are in charge. And trying to get a
response from them. There was nothing and that was the first time I had heard
about rights of nature. The rights of nature movement spans communities in
Pennsylvania, Ecuador, New Zealand, and elsewhere, that have passed statutes
recognizing the legal rights of rivers, forests, and ecosystems. Drawing on these
laws, the Toledo group wrote up a document. They called it the “Lake Erie
Bill of Rights.” It recognized the lake’s right to “exist, flourish and naturally
evolve.” What the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is trying to do is to say hey, Farmer A,
even though you had a permit when you applied it all of that fertilizer and it
ran off into Lake Erie, that is essentially legally wrongful. The bill recognizes Lake Erie’s right to file a lawsuit if it’s been harmed. And if that
sounds ridiculous, consider how that right
has changed over time. Historically, there was a very small pool of actors that could come before
the court and say, something has happened to me, and that is wrong, and you have to
fix it. If someone harmed a woman or an enslaved person, the man they were
beholden to would have to bring a lawsuit on their behalf. And so over the
years, we’ve seen an expansion of who can come before the courts and say my rights
have been violated. It’s not just humans.
Corporations can file lawsuits too. In the United States, the court has also recognized corporations’ rights to make
unlimited political donations and to ignore laws that conflict with the
religious beliefs of their owners. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights argues that
nature should have at least some of these same rights. But that creates a
constitutional puzzle for the courts. Because, if the corporations who raised
this livestock and spread this manure have a right to do business, but the lake
also has a right to be healthy, then whose rights win out? If you’re the kind of person who is
fascinated by the natural world, then I highly recommend you go stop by
CuriosityStream and check out The Secret Life Of Lakes. It’s a fantastic
series that explores the natural life cycles of lakes and the mysteries hidden
beneath them. CuriosityStream is a subscription service, they offer over
2,400 documentaries and nonfiction titles by some of the best filmmakers out there.
You can get unlimited access starting at $2.99 a month and because
you’re a Vox fan, the first 31 days are free, if you go to curiositystream.com/vox and use promo code Vox. CuriosityStream doesn’t impact our editorial, but
their support does make videos like this possible, so go check them out.

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