Toledo Voters Approve Lake Erie Bill of Rights

TOLEDO, Ohio (CN) – Voters in Toledo, Ohio approved a bill that will amend the municipal charter to give Lake Erie legal standing so they can sue on its behalf, but the measure faced an immediate legal challenge Wednesday from a Wood County farmer. 

With all precincts reporting, voters approved the Lake Erie Bill of Rights on Tuesday in a special election by 61 percent to 38 percent. Voters cast 9,867 ballots in favor of giving the 11th largest lake in the world rights usually associated with a person. Residents cast 6,211 against the measure. 

Markie Miller’s group Toledoans for Safe Water helped put the measure on the ballot. She said that she and about 25 to 30 other activists had watched the results come in at a bar in downtown Toledo.

“We’re setting the stage for other communities. We’re just trying to enjoy this moment which we think is truly historic,” Miller said in a phone interview Wednesday.

She said the result showed that grassroots activism can work, even in the face of deep-pocketed opponents, and that she hoped other activists would follow her group’s lead.

For years, algae blooms have given the lake a sickly green tint during the summer and have compromised water quality in the lake. Its central basin supplies drinking water to about 3 million people.

Nutrients from agriculture runoff cause poisonous algae blooms which can sicken people, wipe out marine life and make water in the lake undrinkable.

“I hope people in other communities can look at this and be inspired. It’s not just about a water quality problem. It’s about a democracy problem,” Miller said. 

As expected, the bill faced an immediate legal challenge. Wood County farmer Mark Drewes filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday morning alleging the bill is unconstitutional.

“The ability to properly fertilize its fields is crucial to the success of Drewes Farms’ farming operations. Drewes Farms’ fields are fertilized pursuant to Ohio law, best practices, scientific recommendations, and Drewes Farms has been recognized as a leader in implementing new methods to both reduce the amount of fertilizer used and to reduce runoff from its fields,” the 28-page complaint states. 

Drewes’ attorney Thomas Fusonie with the Columbus firm Vorys Sater said the farmer had filed the lawsuit to protect his family farm.

“The charter amendment is an unconstitutional and unlawful assault on the fundamental rights of family farms in the Lake Erie Watershed – like the Drewes’ 5th generation family farm,” the lawyer said in prepared remarks.

For three days in the summer of 2014, officials declared a state of emergency in the city, forcing hundreds of thousands to turn off their faucets, forgo showers and rinse their toothbrushes with bottled water. 

The Lake Erie Bill of Rights establishes rights for the watershed’s ecosystem to “exist, flourish and naturally evolve” and a “right to a healthy environment for the residents of Toledo.”

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