DENVER (CN) — In a new twist in the long, tortuous history of Western water law, an environmental group sued Colorado this week in federal court, as next friend of the Colorado River Ecosystem, asking the court to grant the river personhood.
Deep Green Resistance and its members want the Colorado River ecosystem granted personhood in the same way a ship, an ecclesiastic corporation or a standard commercial corporation have it — as famously stated by presidential candidate Mitt Romney: “Corporations are people, my friend” — for purposes of constitutional protection and enforcement.
Numerous Supreme Court rulings have upheld corporate personhood, particularly in the realm of campaign finance, notable Buckley v. Valeo (1976), First National Bank of Boston v.Bellotti (1978), and Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010).
The plaintiffs spend five of the lawsuit’s 22 pages arguing why the Colorado River ecosystem should be granted personhood, using corporate rights as “an instructive analogy.”
“The Colorado is 60 to 70 million years old and has enabled, sustained, and allowed for human life for as long as human life has been extant in the Western United States, yet the Colorado has no rights or standing whatsoever to defend itself and ensure its existence; while a corporation that can be perfected in fifteen minutes with a credit card can own property, issue stock, open a bank account, sue or defend in litigation, form and bind contracts, claim Fourth Amendment guarantees, due process, equal protection, hold religious beliefs and perhaps most famously invest unlimited amounts of money in support of its favorite political candidate.”
After citing the Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014), the plaintiffs continue: “The American system of law is replete with doctrines, examples and solutions with regard to when a party cannot bring suit itself and requires another to stand in its stead, including guardians ad litem, parens patriae, executors who can bring suits on behalf of an estate, and trustees. The fiduciary relationship in which one party can litigate in the best of interests of another party has long been recognized by U.S. courts.”
Forty million people in seven states draw water from the Colorado River, which irrigates nearly 4 million acres of cropland. Thirty-four Native American tribes also draw water from the river, which has been reduced to barely a trickle by the time it empties into the Gulf of California.
The complaint enumerates the river’s ecological importance and the dangers presented to it by laws and practices, including a series of compacts which allow various states to divert more water from the than it contains. The so-called Law of the River encourages upstream states to divert water whether they need it or not, in a use-it-or-lose-it arrangement.
The plaintiffs attribute much of the damage done to the river’s ecosystem to a failure of how environmental law views the land itself. “Environmental law has failed to protect the natural environment because it accepts the status of nature and ecosystems as property, while merely regulating the rate at which the natural environment is exploited. Its failure can be seen from the worsening of climate change, the continued pollution of ground and surface water, and the decline of every major ecosystem on the continent.”
Citing recent rulings in Ecuador, Colombia, India and some U.S. municipalities which have recognized that rivers, glaciers and other ecosystems may be treated as legal persons, the plaintiffs ask the court to grant the Colorado River ecosystem a person, capable of possessing rights, and that among these rights are the right “to exist, flourish, regenerate, be restored, and naturally evolve.”
It asks also that Deep Green Resistance be recognized as a guardian and/or next friend of the river, and be allowed to sue the State of Colorado on the river’s behalf.
Deep Green Resistance member Deanna Meyer, a plaintiff, said in a statement: “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.”
The group is represented by Jason Flores-Williams, a criminal defense attorney who became well known when he sued Denver for its sweeps upon the homeless.
“We’re bringing this lawsuit to even the odds,” he said in a statement. “Corporations today claim rights and powers that routinely overwhelm the efforts of people to protect the environment. Our judicial system recognizes corporations as persons, so why shouldn’t it recognize the natural systems upon which we all depend as having rights as well?”
The lawsuit, filed Monday, seek declaratory relief.
(Photo shows the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend, near Page, Arizona.)